The Isle of Blood
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“No, that’s all right. Good-bye, Uncle Abram.” She kissed both his cheeks, adding, “You’ve done the right thing.”
“Oh, I pray so,” he murmured.
And then we were alone.
“I will explain…,” he began, and then shrugged. “She is right. I know nothing about children.”
“I’m not going.”
“Your… situation demands a woman’s touch, Will. You’ve been without one for far too long.”
“That isn’t my fault.”
His eyes flashed. For the first time he lost patience with me. “I do not speak of fault or blame. I speak of remedy. True, I pledged to Pellinore I would watch after you in his absence, but I have other responsibilities that I can no longer neglect.” He puffed out his chest. “I am president of the Society for the Advancement of the Science of Monstrumology, not a nursemaid!”
“Of course you will be the first to know should I hear anything from Europe. The first to know, the moment I know it.”
“I don’t want to go,” I said. “I don’t want to leave you. I don’t want to stay with your niece’s family, and I don’t—I don’t want a bath.”
He smiled. “You will like her, I think. Her heart is fierce, like someone else’s you know.”
Chapter Fourteen: “The Thing That Cannot Be Seen”
And so it was in the winter of my thirteenth year that I came to live with Nathaniel Bates and his family, in their three-story townhouse facing the Hudson on the Upper West Side of Manhattan. Nathaniel Bates was “in finance.” I didn’t learn much of anything else about him during my sojourn there. He was a quiet man who smoked a pipe and was never seen without a tie and never went outside without his hat, and whose shoes were always polished to a dazzling finish and who never had a hair out of place, and he always seemed to have a newspaper tucked under his arm, though I never saw him read one. He communicated, as far as I could tell, by means of monosyllabic grunts, facial expressions (a look over his pince-nez with his right eyebrow raised meant he was displeased, for example), and the occasional bon mot, delivered with such deadpan sincerity that one always laughed at one’s own peril.
Besides their daughter, the Bateses had one other child, a boy of nine named Reginald, whom they called Reggie. Reggie was small for his age, spoke with a slight lisp, and seemed completely enthralled with me from the moment I stepped through the door. My reputation, it seemed, had preceded me.
“You’re Will Henry,” he announced. “The monster hunter!”
“No,” I answered honestly. “But I serve under one.”
“Pellinore Warthrop! The most famous monster hunter in the world.”
I agreed that he was. Reggie was squinting at me through his thick spectacles, his face lit up by the great man’s glow reflecting off me.
“What happened to your finger? Did a monster bite it off?”
“You could say that.”
“And then you killed it, right? You chopped off its head!”
“That’s close,” I answered. “Dr. Warthrop shot it in the head.”
I thought he might faint from excitement.
“I want to be a monster hunter too, Will. Will you train me?”
“I don’t think so.”
Reggie waited until his mother turned her back, and then he kicked me as hard as he could in the shin.
Their daughter I had already met.
“So here you are, and Mother was right, you’ve lost a finger,” said Lillian Bates. I’d just finished my bath—the first in weeks—and my skin felt too loose on my bones, and my scalp burned from the lye. The robe I wore was her father’s and I was lost in it, overly warm, dizzy, and extremely sleepy.
For her part Lilly seemed taller, thinner, and not in the least uncomfortable in her own skin. It had been only a few months since I’d last seen her, but a girl matures faster than her male counterparts. I noticed she had started wearing makeup.
“How did you lose your finger?” she asked.
“Pruning the rosebushes,” I answered.
“Do you lie because you’re ashamed, or do you lie because you think it’s funny?”
“Neither. I lie because the truth is painful.”
“Mother says your doctor left you.”
“He’s coming back.”
She crinkled her nose at me. “When?”
“Not soon enough.”
“Mother says you may be staying with us for a long time.”
“You will, if Mother says. Mother always gets her way.” She did not seem particularly happy about the fact. “I believe you are her new project. She always has a project. Mother is a firm believer in causes. She is a suffragette. Did you know that?”
“I don’t even know what a suffragette is.”
She laughed, a tinkling of bright, shiny coins thrown upon a silver tray. “You never were very bright.”
“And you were never very nice.”
“Mother didn’t say where your Dr. Warthrop went.”
“She doesn’t know.”
“Do you know?”
“I wouldn’t tell you if I did.”
“Even if I kissed you?”
“Especially if you kissed me.”
“Well, I have no intention of kissing you.”
“And I have no intention of telling you anything.”
“So you do know!” She smiled triumphantly at me. “Liar.” And then she kissed me anyway.
“It is a pity, William James Henry” she said, “that you are altogether too young, too timid, and too short, or I might consider you attractive.”
Lilly’s faith was not misplaced. I was her mother, Emily’s, next project. After a restless, unendurably long night in the same room as Reggie, who pestered me with questions and ntreaties for monster stories, and who exhibited an alarming disposition toward midnight flatulence, Mrs. Bates bundled me up and trotted me to the barber’s. Then she took me to the clothier’s, then to the shoemaker’s, and finally, because she was as thorough as she was determined, to the rector of her church, who questioned me for more than an hour while Mrs. Bates sat in a pew, eyes closed, praying, I suppose, for my immortal soul. I confessed to the kindly old priest I had not been to church since my parents had died.
“This man who keeps you… this—what did you call him? Doctor of ‘aberrant biology’? He is not a religious man?”
“I don’t think many doctors of aberrant biology are,” I answered. I remembered his words the day before he abandoned me:
There is something in us that longs for the indescribable, the unattainable, the thing that cannot be seen.
“I would think it’d be the norm for such men, given the nature of their work.”
I didn’t offer a contrary opinion. I really had nothing to say. What I saw, in my mind’s eye, was an empty bucket sitting on the floor beside the necropsy table.
“Look at you!” cried Lilly when we arrived back at the house on Riverside Drive. She had just gotten home herself. She had not yet changed out of her uniform and had had no time to apply makeup. She looked as I remembered her, a young girl close to my own age, and somehow that made my palms begin to itch. “I hardly recognize you, Will Henry. You look so…” She searched for the word. “Different.”
Later that evening—much later; it was not easy in the Bates home to have time to oneself—I happened to glance in the bathroom mirror and was shocked by the image of the boy captured there. But for the slightly haunted look in his eyes, he bore little resemblance to the boy who had warmed himself by a fire fed with the chopped-up remains of a dead man.
Everything was different.
Each morning there was a full breakfast, for which we were expected to arrive promptly at six. No one was allowed to start this meal—or any meal—until Mr. Bates picked up his fork. After breakfast Lilly and Reggie went off to school, Mr. Bates went off to his job “in finance,” and Mrs. Bates went off with me. She was appalled at the staggering extent of my ignorance in the most elemental aspects of a proper childhood. I had never been to a museum or a concert or a minstrel show or the ballet or even the zoo. I had never attended a lecture, seen a play, watched a magic lantern show, been to the circus, ridden a bicycle, read a book by Horatio Alger, skated, flown a kite, climbed a tree, tended a garden, or played a musical instrument. I hadn’t even played a single parlor game! Not charades or blindman’s bluff, which I’d heard of, and not deer-stalker or cupid’s coming or dumb crambo, which I had not.
“Whatever did you do at night, then?” she inquired.
I did not wish to answer that question; I was honestly concerned she might arrange to have the monstrumologist arrested for endangering a child.
“Helped the doctor.”
“Helped him with what?”
“Work? No, I am speaking of afterward, William. After the work was finished for the day.”
“The work was never finished.”
“But when did you have time for your studies?”
I shook my head. I did not understand what she meant.
“Your schoolwork, William.”
“I don’t go to school.”
She was flabbergasted. When she discovered I had not been inside a classroom in more than two years, she was furious—so furious, in fact, that she brought up the matter to her husband.
“William has informed me that he has not attended a single day of school since the death of his parents,” she told him that evening.
“Humf! You seem surprised.”
“Mr. Bates, I am mortified. He’s treated no better than one of that man’s horrid specimens.”
“More like one of his instruments, I’d say. Another tool in his monster hunting kit.”
“But we must do something!”
“Humf. I know what you’re going to suggest, but we’ve no right, Emily. The boy is our guest, not our responsibility.
“He is a lost soul placed in our path by the Almighty Father. He is the Jew beaten by the side of the road. Would you be the Levite or the Samaritan?”
“I prefer being Episcopalian.”
She dropped the subject, but only for the time being. Emily Bates was not the kind of “expert in the field” who allowed a boil to fester.
I did not see much of Lilly on school days. Her afternoons were devoted to piano and violin lessons, ballet classes, shopping trips, trips to the salon, visits with friends. I saw her at breakfast, at the evening meal, and afterward when the family gathered in the parlor, where I learned all the games in the Bates family repertoire. I detested charades, because I was awful at it. I had no cultural context upon which to draw. But I liked card games (old maid and old bachelor, our birds and Dr. Busby) and I Have a Basket, at which I excelled. When my turn came round, I could always name what was in my “basket,” no matter what letter fell to me. A was easy: Anthropophagi. V? Why, I have a Vastarus hominis in my basket! What about X? That’s a hard one, but not too hard for me. Look here. It’s a Xiphias!