The Final Descent
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You know what is coming. Will you turn aside?
The end is there in the beginning.
Turn aside or come and see? Choose now, choose now.
I slapped the knife onto the kitchen table. Warthrop jerked in his chair and his eyes darted away from my face as I rose. He seemed to shrink before me, diminishing to a point infinitesimally small: he the earth and I the rocket ship blasting into the outer atmosphere. I strode to the basement door. He grabbed at my arm with a desperate cry. I yanked free. I did not know what was behind that door. Of course I knew what was behind that door:
I have found it, Will Henry. The thing itself.
I brought the heel of my boot against the ancient wood—it was thrice Warthrop’s age—and the door split apart with a satisfying crack, splintering straight down the middle, and behind me the monstrumologist gave an answering cry, as if I were breaking him in half. I ripped the door from its hinges with my bare hands. A putrid, nauseous stench washed over me, like the exhalation of God’s greatest failure locked in Judecca’s ice, the cloying reek of rotting flesh, the thing itself, he called it, the thing itself.
My eyes adjusted to the gloom below, the perpetual dark of the thing itself, and why had he raised the floor? And why had he painted it a shiny, obsidian black? But it was not paint and it was not the floor, for it moved. It flowed like the muddy sludge left over from a devastating flood. It undulated, black with flashes of brilliant iridescent green.
And then the head appeared, five feet across, flat at the top, for its ancient brain knew what the opening of the door meant, the toothless mouth stretching obscenely open, and seeing the glistening red gullet is like looking into the fiery abyss leading straight to hell, and I do not imagine that I can see myself reflected in its lidless amber eye. I fill it as its fifty-foot body fills the basement. The massive head, red mouth yawning open, rests upon the stairs, too old or too large to come any closer, or perhaps it cannot. Perhaps it has grown too large for its container. No. Not that. Trapped in its amber eye, I realize that the thing itself has lost the reason for its being. It is a shell, a hollow sack with no purpose but to continue one more meaningless day.
“You must understand,” its twin said behind me. “Can you understand, Will? I couldn’t just . . . It was unthinkable . . . unendurable. . . . It is the last of its kind. The last of its kind!”
“It died in the Monstrumarium,” I said. I could not free myself from the amber eye.
“No. I found it afterward buried in the rubble. Acosta- Rojas’s body had shielded it from the debris.”
“You didn’t bring it back here, though.”
“No, that was much later—after you moved away.”
“And never told me.”
“For the same reason I lied to you then. It is precious beyond price, and the fewer who knew, the better—for the world, Will, and for it. It is the last of its kind! When Acosta-Rojas told me he’d found it—”
“Yes, yes,” I snapped, held still by the amber eye. “He told me. You forced him to hand it over—you threatened to kill him if he didn’t.”
“No! I saved him—or tried to—just as I tried to save Beatrice—as I tried to save you—”
“Save me from what? Never mind. What does it matter now?” Filled with disgust and loathing, captive in the amber eye. “You cannot lie your way out of this one, Warthrop. I have it from his own lips: You offered him his life for the prize.”
“I offered to save his life. The fool had let it out, what he’d found—the news had already reached certain unsavory quarters. He was afraid. And I was afraid that it would be lost. And it is a thing that can never be lost. What choice did he give me?”
I wrenched myself free of the eye and whirled about. In two strides I was upon him. I yanked him up; the chair clattered to the floor. He was wasted down to nothing, bones no more substantial than a bird’s. I could have hurled him a hundred yards.
“Yes, let us speak of choices! Did she see it? Is that why you murdered her? To protect it from the world?”
“I didn’t kill her!” he screeched. “The ridiculous woman’s curiosity got the better of her—she opened the door and went too far down the stairs. Too far, Will! I pulled her from its mouth, but it was too late. Too late! And then what was I to do? Who could I tell? No, no. Not our fault. Her fault, Will. Her fault!”
I flung him to the floor. He curled into a ball; he did not try to get up. His father had been found this way, curled up like a fetus in its mother’s womb. Ending as he began.
“Too late,” I gasped. The smell of death loitered in the room. The cold held it still. “You said it was too late. Too late for what?”
“There is no way out,” he whimpered. “I cannot kill it—it is the last of its kind. I cannot return it to the wild—how could such a thing be accomplished?”
“You could give it away. There are a hundred universities and—”
“No!” he cried, striking his fist upon the floor. “Never! It is mine! It belongs to me!”
“Does it?” I knelt beside him. His hands were folded up, tucked beneath his chin. His eyes were wide and frightened: the hunted cowering in the brush, the child sleepless in the dark. “There is a captive here, but it isn’t at the bottom of those stairs. It has swallowed you already.”
“The thing itself, Will Henry. The thing itself! The thing to which there is no human answer. The thing I’ve hunted all these many years, the thing I was chasing—until it caught me!”
He seized my wrist. He pulled me close.
“You are the one. You have always been the one. You see where I am afraid to look. You are my eyes in the dark places. Look, then, and tell me what you see.”
I nodded. I thought I understood. I was his eyes. What did I see? Open, expectant mouth. White lamb with skittering black eyes. And the Sibyl, blessed and cursed. What would you?
I scooped him from the floor and cradled his body in my arms like he was a child. He pressed his freshly washed head beneath my chin.
His hand reached up and touched gently my cheek. “You have always been indispensable to me.”
I kissed his sweet-smelling hair. The ice of Judecca cracks, soft as a feather falling. Creator forgives creation and creation absolves creator.
There is forgiveness. There is justice. There is mercy.
There is room, after all.
I will raise you up. I will not suffer you to drown.
And the beast that waits for us in the final descent.
I turned one last time and started down the stairs.
Oct. 23, 1911
The marshal has issued his final report, of copy of which I have taken the liberty of enclosing with this letter. As you will see, it concludes that the fire was “of suspicious, if undetermined, origins.” I sorely wish that I had a more satisfactory answer, not only for your peace of mind but for my own as well. Pellinore was not a dear friend, nor even, I would say, a particularly close one, but he was a singular man, and I daresay the world will not see another like him for a hundred generations.
I have been to the site twice now, the second time in honor of your specific request, and I am sorry to report I can find nothing of any salvageable value—there is nothing left of the house but the chimney—nothing, that is, beyond the contents of the storage shed and old livery, including that fine old automobile, which you stated in your latest letter that you had no interest in.
The memorial service was quite moving, if not the best attended. I would have been overjoyed to have shared with you the melancholy of that final farewell, but I understand all too well the demands of your business. P. would too, I think.
My sole regret—and do not think I say this to add any burden to your loss—is that you were unable to get away last month to see him. No, that burden is mine, for you are there and I was always here, and now my conscience torments me for not having banged on that door until he answered. My theory of the case is that the fire began when the old curmudgeon forgot to pay his power bill and reverted to kerosene and candle wax for his illumination.
Perhaps when you have a few days to spare from your labors, you can make it back to your old stomping grounds. I don’t think you’ve been back for two years or more. It would do this old man’s heart good to see you, and I feel I owe you a personal apology for neglecting the man who was so very dear to you.
As always, I remain
P.S. If you’ve truly no interest in the Lozier, I might be interested in taking it off your hands. Not as a gift, of course! I am willing to pay a reasonable price for it.
These have been the secrets I kept.
Old man in a dry season.
Boy in a tattered hat.
And the man in the stained white coat, monstrous hunter of nameless things.
The one who blessed me, the one who cursed me.
Who raised me upon his shoulders that I, the dark tide of his making, might carry him down.
Remember me, he said. When all else has been forgotten.
A small fortune was mine afterward. I was all he had and all else he had came to me.
Where did I go? Up and down, to and fro. I wandered the earth, the indispensable companion companionless. I fled the States, ended up on the Continent in time for the monster that digested thirty-seven million souls in its fiery gut. After the war, I bought a little house on the southern coast of France. I hired a local girl to cook and clean. She was young and pretty, and I may have been in love with her.
In the warm summer afternoons we would go for walks on the beach. I liked the ocean. From the shore you could see the edge of the world.
“Let me ask you, Aimée. It is it round or is it a plate?”
And she would laugh at me, slipping her arm through mine. She thought I was joking.
And I was happy for a time.
Her father had died at Verdun. Her lover at the Somme. She met someone new, and when he proposed, she asked if I would give her away. I agreed, though I was heartbroken. I did not hire another girl after she left. I packed up the house and returned to the States.
I ended up back in New York for a time. I still had my apartment there. I wrote some. I drank more. I wandered the streets. Where the old opera house had stood there was now a bank. A different kind of society. A different breed of hunters. Monstrumology was dead, but all of us are, and always will be, monstrumologists. In the afternoons you could usually find me in the park, just another lonely man on a bench among pigeons. I was still caught, you see, inside the glass jar, within the amber eye. You are my memory, he had told me night after sleepless night. And that was what I became: the immortal sack, Judecca’s ice.
The twenties ended with a great crash, and one day I picked up the paper to read about a man who had jumped from the Brooklyn Bridge after losing his entire fortune. His name was Nathaniel Bates. The notice included the particulars of the memorial service.
I was an accomplished hunter and tracker, and was sure she hadn’t seen me, but after her father was laid in the earth she spotted me beneath a sycamore tree. Years had gone by, she was no longer young, but the blue of her eyes was undiluted, pure all the way down.