The Isle of Blood
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He came awake at once, a wild look in his eyes, as if he were seeing a ghost.
“Will Henry?” he croaked.
“I’m thirsty,” I said.
He said nothing at first. He continued to stare until his stare unnerved me.
“Well, then, Will Henry, I shall fetch you a drink of water.”
After I drank some water and sipped some lukewarm broth, he placed the tray on the bedside table (the gun was gone, as were the ropes) and said he needed to change the dressing on my injury.
“You don’t have to look—unless you’d like to. It’s a clean cut, a really extraordinary amputation considering the circumstances.”
“If it’s all the same to you, Dr. Warthrop…#8221;
“Of course. You’ll be happy to know there’s no sign of infection. The operation was not performed under the most sanitary of conditions, as you know. I expect a full recovery.”
“It doesn’t feel like it’s gone.”
“Hmmm.” Examining his handiwork. “Yes, it’s healing up quite nicely. We are extremely fortunate it is your left index finger, Will Henry.”
“You’re right-handed, are you not?”
“Yes, sir. I suppose that is fortunate.”
“Well, I’m not saying you should feel grateful.”
“But I do feel grateful, Dr. Warthrop. You saved my life.”
He finished putting on the fresh bandage in silence. He seemed troubled by the remark. Then he said, “I would like to think so. The plain truth is that it may have been for nothing. You don’t know if Mr. Kendall was the author of your injury, and I do not know what, if anything, might have happened if he were. When faced with the unknown, it’s best to take the most conservative approach. That’s all well and good as theories go, but the end result is that I took a butcher knife and chopped off your finger.”
He gave my knee an awkward pat and stood up, wincing, pressing his hands into the small of his back.
“Now, if you’ll excuse me, I must have a bath and a change of clothes. Don’t try to get up yet. Use the bedpan if you need to void your bladder or relieve your bowels. What are you smiling about?” he asked crossly. “Did you think I would allow you to wallow in your own excrement?”
“I fail to see what is humorous about a bedpan.”
“Nothing, sir. It’s the idea of you emptying one.”
He stiffened and said with great dignity, “I am a natural scientist. We are accustomed to dealing with shit.”
He returned at the setting of the sun, asked how I was faring, and informed me it would not be a bad thing if I tried to get out of bed.
“You will be dizzy and sore, but the sooner you become ambulatory the better. We’ve much to do before we leave for New York.”
“What is there to do, Dr. Warthrop?” I assumed he meant the packing, a chore that always fell to me.
“I would have done it already, but I didn’t want to leave… I thought it best, when you regained consciousness… Well, I could not be two places at once,” he finished impatiently.
I was, I nearly told him. I bit back the words. He would scoff at the notion of my disembodied spirit observing him from the ceiling.
“You would have done what already?”
“Mr. Kendall, Will Henry. We must…” He paused as if searching for the right word. “Resolve this issue of Mr. Kendall.”
We must resolve this issue of Mr. Kendall.
By this the monstrumologist did not mean notifying the family of his demise or making arrangements for returning the body to its native England for burial.
I don’t know why I would think for an instant that it did. How would one go about explaining to his loved ones—or to the British authorities, for that matter—a badly decomposed corpse with a fresh gunshot wound to the head? There was also the sticky matter of the potential virulence of the contagion. As Warthrop put it, “It could be the spark that lights a conflagration that would make the plague seem like a campfire in comparison.”
No, we spent the entirety of that first evening of my recovery in the basement laboratory, dismembering Wymond Kendall.
The monstrumologist wanted samples of every major organ, including the brain (he was very excited to have a look at Mr. Kendall’s brain), which he removed in toto after sawing off the top of his head. I was forced to hold it—an awkward proposition given the thick bandages on my left hand—while the doctor severed the medulla. I had never held a human brain before. Its delicacy surprised me; I thought it would be much heavier.
“The average human brain weighs approximately three pounds, Will Henry,” the doctor said in response to my startled expression. “Compare that to the total weight of our skin, around six pounds, and you have a fact that is as compelling as it is unnerving.”
He took the three-pound seat of Kendall’s consciousness from me and said, “Observe the frontal lobe, Will Henry. The sulci—these deep crevices you see covering the rest of the brain—have all disappeared. The thinking part of his brain is as smooth as a billiard ball.”
I asked him what that meant.
“Well, we may assume it is not a congenital defect, though he did not strike me as all that bright—more gyri than sulci—Sorry, a bit of anatomical tomfoolery there. We may assume it is a manifestation of the toxin. This aligns perfectly with the literature, which claims the victim, in the final stages, becomes little more than a beast, incapable of reason but fully capable of a murderous, cannibalistic rage. Certain indigenous tribes of the Lakshadweep Islands report whole villages wiped out by a single exposure to the pwdre ser, until the last man standing literally eats himself to death.”
The doctor laughed dryly, absently caressing the smooth tissue of Kendall’s brain, and added, “I mean he eats himself to death. When everyone else is dead or has run off, he turns upon himself and feeds from his own body, until he has either bled to death or contracted an infection. Well, you’ve seen the contents of Mr. Kendall’s stomach; I don’t believe he swallowed his tongue by accident.”
He directed me to fill a large specimen jar with formaldehyde, into which he then carefully lowered the brain. As I was heaving the jar onto the shf, my eye was drawn to a nearby container, one I had not seen before. It took a moment for me to recognize what floated inside the amber fluid.
“It is,” he answered.
“You kept it?”
“Well, I didn’t want to just throw it out with the trash.”
“But why did you—What are you going to do with it?”
“I thought I’d rip a page from Mrs. Shelley’s book and construct another boy, one who won’t pester me with questions, who refrains from getting seriously injured at the most inopportune time, and who does not see it as his mission in life to judge my every decision as if appointed by God to be my conscience.” His attendant smile was quick and humorless. “It’s an important piece of evidence. Forgive me. I thought that would go without saying. When I have the time—which at the moment I most certainly do not—I’ll perform a thorough analysis to determine whether you were actually infected.”
I stared at my finger floating in the fluid for a long moment. It is exceedingly odd to see a piece of yourself apart from yourself.
“If I wasn’t, I don’t want to know,” I said.
He started to say something, and then stopped himself. He nodded curtly. “I understand.”
The monstrumologist next opened up Mr. Kendall’s torso to remove the major organs. He found numerous sacklike growths—“omental cystic lesions,” he called them—lining the interior of the stomach. He gently pressed into one with the tip of his scalpel, and it popped open with a barely audible pompf!, spilling a clear, thick fluid with the consistency of mucus.
After the organs had been preserved and properly labeled, it was time to address, in Warthrop’s words, “the final disposition.”
“The bone saw, please, Will Henry. No, the large one there.”
He began by removing Mr. Kendall’s hollowed-out head. “The ground is much too hard for us to bury the body,” he said as he sawed through the neck. “And I can’t afford to wait until the spring thaw. We’ll have to burn it, Will Henry.”
“What if someone comes looking for him?”
“Who? He fled quickly, in a state of extreme fear. Perhaps he told no one. But let’s assume that he did. What do they know? They know he was coming; he did not have the opportunity or the means to inform them what happened once he arrived. Should the authorities ask questions, I can always say I never met the man, that he may have set out to find me but in the end failed in his quest.”
He dropped the severed head unceremoniously into the empty washtub beside the necropsy table, the same wash-tub into which he had plunged my bloody hands. The head landed with a frightening clang and rolled to one side, the right eye open (the left had been removed by the monstrumologist for study) and seeming to stare directly at me.
“There one bright spot in this distasteful turn of events,” the doctor opined as he separated Mr. Kendall’s right leg from his torso. “We have removed all doubt as to the authenticity of Dr. Kearns’s ‘present.’ We have in our possession the second greatest prize in monstrumology, Will Henry.”
“What is the first greatest?” I asked.
“The ‘first greatest’? Really, Will Henry.”
“The thing that made it?” I guessed. “The… magnificum?”
“Very good! Typhoeus magnificum, named for the father of all monsters—also called the Unseen One.”
“Why is it called that?”
He looked up from his work and stared at me as if all my sulci had given way to gyri.
“It is called the Unseen One, Will Henry,” he said slowly and carefully, “because it has never been seen.
“Practically everything about it is a mystery,” he told me. He was cutting through the glenohumeral joint that connected Mr. Kendall’s humerus to his scapula. My job for this portion of the “disposition” was literally to hold the corpse’s hand, to keep the arm perpendicular to the legless torso. “From class to species, from mating habits to habitat, from life cycle to precise form. We aren’t even sure if it’s a predator. The stories—and they are nothing more than that, folktales passed on from generation to generation—say it is unequivocally predacious, but they are just that—stories and folktales, not credible observation. The only real physical evidence we have of the magnificum are the nidi, its nests, and pwdre ser, which first were thought to be its droppings and are now considered, as I told Mr. Kendall here”—he nodded to the washtub by his feet—“to be part of the digestive system, its saliva or venom, produced in its mouth or some other glandular organ.” He pulled the blade free and said, “There, Will Henry. Give his arm a tug and see if it comes free. Oh, good! Give Master Henry a hand!”