The Isle of Blood
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He tossed an apple at me and bade me follow him upstairs. I slipped the apple into my coat pocket; I had no appetite.
“The sclerosing bone dysplasia has exacerbated,” he called over his shoulder as he took the steps two at a time. “But his heart is as strong as a horse’s, his lungs are clear, his blood super-oxygenated. The edema of the muscular tissue continues unabated, and—” He stopped suddenly and whirled about, causing me to almost smack face-first into his chest. “This is the most remarkable thing, Will Henry. Although his dermis continues to deteriorate and slough off, he hasn’t lost more than a teacup’s worth of blood, mostly around the wrists and ankles, so I took the precaution of loosening the bindings a bit.”
I followed him into the room. Immediately my hand flew up to cover my nose; the smell was truly overwhelming. It dropped scorching into my lungs. Why hadn’t he opened the window? The monstrumologist seemed oblivious to the reek. He continued to chomp on his apple, even as tears of protest coursed down his cheeks.
“What?” he demanded. “Why are you staring at me like that? Don’t look at me; look at Mr. Kendall!”
He didn’t nudge me toward the bed. I took that step myself.
He did not grab my chin and force me to look.
I looked because I wanted to look. I looked because of the tight thing unwinding, das Ungeheuer, the me/not-me, Tantalus’s grapes, the thing you cannot name. The thing I knew but did not understand. The thing you may understand but do not know.
I flung myself from the room and managed a dozen shuffling steps down the hall before I collapsed. Everything inside gave way. I felt empty. I was nothing more than a shadow, a shell, a hollow carapace that had once dreamed it was a boy.
A shadow fell over me. I did not look up. I knew I would find no comfort from the bearer of that shadow.
“He’s dying,” I said. “We have to do something.”
“I am doing all within my power, Will Henry,” he responded gently.
“You aren’t doing anything! You’re not trying to cure him.”
“I have told you there is no—”
“Then, find one!” I screamed at him. “You said it yourself, there is no one else. You’re the one. You’re the one! If you can’t help him, then nobody can, and you won’t. You won’t because you want him to die! You want to see what the poison does to him!”
“May I remind you that I am not the one who exposed him? He did that to himself,” he said. He squatted beside me and placed his hand upon my shoulder. I heaved myself away from him.
“What he is, that’s what you are inside,” I told him.
“There is but one way to end his suffering,” he said, the gentle tone abandoned; his voice, like his shadow upon me, was hard.
He pulled the revolver from his pocket and thrust it toward me. “Here. Would you like to do it? For I cannot. Simply because there is no hope for him, Will Henry, that doesn’t mean I have to give up all hope for me.”
“There is no hope—for either of you.”
He dropped the revolver to the floor. It lay between us. His shadow and the gun lay between us.
“You’re tired,” he said. “Go to bed.”
“Very well. Sleep on the floor. It makes no difference to me!”
He scooped up the revolver and left me alone with my misery. I don’t know how long I lay there in that hall. It mattered no more to me than it did to the monstrumologist where I slept. I do not remember climbing the stairs into the loft, but I do remember throwing myself upon the bed fully clothed and watching the snow-laden clouds through the window over my head. The clouds were the color of Mr. Kendall’s rotting skin.
I closed my eyes. There in the darkness inside my own head, I saw him, gray-skinned, black-eyed, hollow-cheeked, sharp tusks of bone tearing through papery flesh, a corpse whose galloping heart refused to stop.
My stomach rumbled loudly. When was the last time I’d eaten? I could not remember. I pulled from my pocket the apple that the monstrumologist had given me. Its skin was the color of Mr. Kendall’s bloody teeth.
When I see gray now, I think of rotting flesh.
And red is not the color of apples or roses or the dresses that pretty girls wear in summertime.
Chapter Six: “An Interesting Phenomenon”
Sometime later—though it was not much later—his hand fell upon my shoulder. Above me was the window and, above the window, the clouds with their bellies full of snow.
“Will Henry,” the monstrumologist said. His voice was cracked and raw, as if he’d been screaming at the top of his lungs. “Will Henry.”
“What time is it?” I asked.
“A quarter past three. I did not wish to wake you…”
“But you woke me anyway.”
“I wanted to show you something.”
I rolled onto my side, away from him.
“I don’t want to look at him again.”
“It isn’t Mr. Kendall. It’s this.” I heard the crinkle and crunch of papers in his hand. “A treatise by a French scientist named Albert Calmette, of the Pasteur Institute. It’s concerned with the theoretical possibility of developing antivenin, based on the vaccine principles of Pasteur. The theory applies to certain poisonous snakes and arachnids, but it could have applications in our case—Mr. Kendall’s case, I mean. It may be worth a try.”
“Then, try it.”
“Yes.” He cleared his throat. “The chief obstacle is time, in that Mr. Kendall doesn’t have much of it left.”
I rolled onto my back, and the form of the monstrumologist swung into view. He looked exhausted. He swayed like a man trying to keep his balance on the yawing deck of a ship.
“Then, you had better get to work.”
“It means you will have to sit with Mr. Kendall.”
I sat up, swung my feet over the side of the bed, and tugged on my shoes.
“I will sit with him.”
Before he allowed me into the room, the doctor uncapped a small vial filled with a thick, clear liquid and shook several drops of the substance onto his handkerchief.
“Here. Tie this round your face,” he instructed me, and then proceeded to tie the knot himself. My senses were assaulted by a sweet, musky fragrance that reminded me of rubbing alcohol, though without the biting astringency.
“What is it?” I asked.
“Ambra grisea, or ambergris, the aged regurgitation of the sperm whale,” the monstrumologist answered. “A common ingredient in perfume. I often wonder, though, how common it would be if ladies in particular knew where it came from. You see, ambergris is normally expelled through the whale’s anus with fecal matter, but—”
“Fecal matter?” My stomach rolled.
“Shit. But sometimes the mass is too large to pass, and the material is regurgitated through the mouth.”
“In a manner of speaking, yes. The ancient Chinese called it ‘dragon’s spittle.’ In the Middle Ages people carried balls of it around, believing it could ward off the plague. It’s quite pleasant, though, isn’t it?”
I agreed that it was. The doctor smiled with satisfaction, as if he had just imparted an important lesson.
“All right. Quietly now, Will Henry.”
We stepped into the bedroom. Despite the gift of regurgitated whale shit, I could smell Kendall’s decay. It stung my eyes. The taste of it tingled upon my tongue. I had expected it, though that had done little to prepare me for it. All other expectations, to my surprise, were not met.
First, Warthrop had taken his mother’s coverlet and put it back where he had found it. Mr. Kendall was covered from feet to neck.
That was not all. Mr. Kendall himself had changed. I had expected more of the agonized writhing, the grunts and throaty moans of someone in extreme mental and physical distress. Instead he was so still, so quiet, that for the briefest of moments I thought he might have finally succumbed. But no, he lived. The covers rose and fell, and upon closer examination I saw that his eyes roamed beneath their half-closed lids. Most astonishing of all (given the astonishing circumstances) was the smile. Wymond Kendall was smiling! As if lost in a pleasant dream, he smiled.
“Mr. Kendall… is he—”
“Smiling? Yes, I would call that a smile. The stories say that in the final stages the victim experiences moments of intense euphoria, an overwhelming feeling of bliss. It’s an interesting phenomenon; perhaps once in the bloodstream pwdre ser releases a compound structurally similar to an opiate.” He stopped, laughed softly—at himself?—and said, “I should get to work on the antivenin. Call me at once should his condition change.”
And with that the monstrumologist left me alone with Kendall. He would not have done so, I have told myself many times over the course of my long life, if he had known what Kendall had become—if he had known that Kendall was not Kendall anymore—that he was no more human, or more sentient, than a dime-store mannequin.
I have told myself that.
The room is cold. The light is gray. The even exhalations of the once-human thing on the bed are the only things the boy can hear—metronomic, the ticking of the human clock, lulling him to sleep.
He is so tired. His head lolls. He tells himself he won’t fall asleep. Just rest his eyes for a moment or two…
In the gray light in the cold room, to the rhythmic breath of the thing becoming—sleep.
Sleep now, Will Henry, sleep.
Do you see her? In the white behind the gray, in the warm beyond the cold, in the silence past the ticking of the clock—she is baking a pie, an apple pie, your favorite. And you at the table with your tall glass of milk, swinging your legs, not long enough yet for your feet to touch the floor.
It must coolfirst, Willy. It must cool.
A strand of hair loosed from her bun falling down her graceful neck, and her new apron, and a dab of flour upon her cheek, and how long her arms seem reaching into the oven, and the whole world smelling like apples.
Where is Father?
With the doctor?
Of course with the doctor.
I want to go.
You do not know what you’re wishing for.
When will he be home?
Soon, I hope.
He says one day I shall go with him.
One day I will.
But if you go, who will keep me company?
You can come too.
Where your father goes, I have no desire to follow.
The fire that engulfs her has no heat. Her scream makes no sound. The boy sits in his chair with his short legs swinging and his tall glass of milk, and he watches the flames consume her, and he is laughing while his mother burns, and the world still smells like apples.
And then his father’s voice, calling him:
Will Henry! Will Henreeeeeeee!
I bolted from the chair, stumbled toward the bed, turned, lunged through the doorway into the hall, and started down the stairs. It was not my father’s voice—not the dream voice—but the doctor’s calling me, as he had a hundred times before, in desperate need of my indispensible services.
“Coming, sir!” I called, pounding down the stairs to the main floor. “I’m coming!”