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“She was the dominant of the two?”
“He was terrified of her; that much was clear.”
“Yet she did not turn on him-why?”
Varner did not answer. His eyes had fallen closed again. Perhaps if he closed them, we, like the frightful images playing on the ceiling, would fall away into oblivion. He became so still for a moment that I thought he had stopped breathing.
“You asked why I’ve come,” began Warthrop, returning to his side. “She sent me here, Hezekiah, for like you she survived the voyage of the Feronia, and her offspring have prospered in their adopted home. Her progeny, perhaps more than thirty strong now, are but a three hours’ ride from this very room.”
Varner moaned. By now we had endured it so long it had become background noise, like the flies beating themselves against the glass. What of the flies? Warthrop had wondered. What of the flies?
“My father tortured himself over your fate,” he continued. “But showed no concern over the destiny of your peculiar cargo. He was many things, but he was foremost a scientist, and he would not have assumed the Anthropophagi had been lost or had perished of starvation at sea. Something or someone had assured him that there was no need to pursue the matter, and there were no witnesses who could do that, save one: the sole survivor of the cargo vessel Feronia. Is that why he sought you out after twenty years, to question you again as to its fate?”
Varner’s flesh shone sickly gray in the lamplight as he perspired beneath the mounds of covers, and for the first time I smelled something other than chlorine, the faintest pungent whiff of decay, and I wondered if perhaps a rat had crawled beneath the bed and died. It might have explained the flies. I glanced toward the blackened window. What of the flies?
“’Twas two things that doomed the Feronia: nature’s fickleness and man’s folly,” Varner groaned, relenting at last to the monstrumologist’s demand. “On the nineteenth day at sea, we hit the doldrums. For the next eight days, no wind, just a glassy sea as flat as the Kansas prairie, and the brutal tropical sun beating down upon our heads, day after day, eights days of it, until the crew became restless and bored and nearly always drunk. They took to tormenting them for sport. Placing bets on how long the wretched livestock the men dropped into the hold would last, and which monster would score the kill. Opening the trapdoor and teasing them through the bars, throwing things at them and delighting in the resulting rage. The big one, the female, could leap from the bottom twenty feet below to within a foot of the bars; they bet on that, too, on how close her claws could come without touching them. Wilson, the first mate, invented much of their sport. And it was Wilson who would pay for his folly first.”
On the last day before the winds relieved the deadly calm that had stalled their passage, Varner told us, after another hot, indolent, rum-soaked day, Wilson and two of his shipmates decided to butcher one of the calves and offer a bloody slice of it to the Anthropophagi. Wilson ’s drunken reasoning ran thus: The beasts won’t eat what we offer because they know what it is! No self-respecting man-eater will deign to dine on a bloody goat. But if it don’t know where it comes from, it might mistake it for man meat and eat it! The plan was not approved by the captain; he had taken to his quarters with what he suspected might be malaria. His crew slaughtered the squealing sacrifice on deck and hurled its viscera overboard to the waiting sharks, oblivious in their besotted state that the fishes’ feeding frenzy was mere prelude, an awful foreshadowing of future events.
Wilson and a roustabout named Smith sliced off a thick piece of the calf’s flank and affixed it to a grappling hook. The hook they tied to one end of a thirty-foot coil of rope, and Wilson lowered the bait through the bars, lying on his belly so as to witness the results of his experiment.
It was dusk, a somnolent hour for the Anthropophagi, when they burrowed into their bowers of straw, nestlike beds that, the captain informed us, the creatures had spent hours carefully constructing and hours more maintaining. Anthropophagi are nocturnal hunters and spend most of the day sleeping, nursing their young, or performing bonding rituals with other members of the troop, the chief-and most bizarre-of which is the practice of picking bits of human flesh lodged in one another’s teeth with the tip of their longest nail, the one extending from their middle finger. The operation is a delicate exercise in trust and self-control, for the recipient must remain perfectly still while its companion reaches far into the recesses of its tooth-encrusted maw to clean the back teeth. If it moves, the razor-sharp claw might slice open its gums, causing a reflexive slamming shut of its jaw, thus severing the hand of the one performing this invaluable service.
Wilson could barely see them as they nestled together in the straw at the farthermost corner of the ship’s hold. The iron bars welded over the portholes limited the light within even on the brightest day, and now the sun was setting; the monsters were mere darker shadows among lighter shadows, barely discernible from the mounds of straw surrounding them; indeed, none could be certain whether those humped shadows represented their catch or were merely lumps of straw. Wilson swung the rope to and fro, calling softly for them to wake, that dinner was served. It had been more than three weeks since they had last fed, and they had to have been ravenous. His companions, Smith and the navigator, Burns, stood on either side of him, bending low, peering into the gloom, unable to contain their gleeful giggles. They urged Wilson on. “Lower!” they exhorted him. “Swing it closer so’s they can smell it!” Into the dark and fetid hole they called, that prison that had once held a thousand pounds of human cargo, chattel for the cotton fields of Georgia and the indigo plantations of Louisiana-for the Feronia had been a slaving ship plying the illegal trade in the years prior to the war. And now it was littered with the rotting carcasses of goats, the unrecognizable remains of the poor little chimpanzees that had followed them to their unthinkable end, and the stinking excrement of the beasts that had torn the animals’ bodies apart with the ease of children pulling wings from flies. “Come on now, beasties! Wake thee up and have some dinner!” Their calls went unheeded. Unable to bring the bait within sniffing distance of the sleeping carnivores, Wilson shoved his right arm between the bars, dropping the rope another two feet into the hold. “Be ready to pull me up, lads,” he told his companions as he swung the dangling chunk of fattened calf, fresh blood flying from its tip. “You’ve seen how fast they-”
The thought would never be finished. Wilson, however, in less than thirty terrifying seconds, would be.
Later, before meeting the same awful fate as the foolish Wilson, as he cowered half mad with terror within the captain’s cabin behind the makeshift barricade, Burns told Varner what had happened in that horrifying half minute.
Whether she erupted from the straw bedding or from somewhere else, no one could say-Burns because he did not see it, Wilson and Smith because both were dead. Wilson, for fear he might drop it, had wrapped the rope twice around his wrist, so when she struck, her weight upon the hook yanked his shoulder clear through the bars, though he had released his hold in the instant of the attack. The rope unwound from his wrist and dropped to the floor, but Wilson ’s shoulder was now wedged in the narrow space between the iron bars. In a voice hoarse with rum and heightened by hysteria, Wilson cried for them to pull him up. Did he see her in the murk below? Did her black, soulless eyes, glowing in the light of a dying sun, meet his before the slathering mouth yawned wide and she leaped twenty feet straight up?
The claws that struck punctured clear through the muscle and sinew of his forearm, and, as they raked downward, borne by the creature’s enormous girth, she swung her other talon up and latched on to one of the bars, inaccessible to her before Wilson had generously offered her a hand up. His companions recoiled in horror and dismay amid her savage snarls and their foolish companion’s cries of fear and pain; his legs jerked; his feet pushed against the weathered planks as he tried to yank himself free, but the drag of her bulk upon his captured arm had wedged him even tighter. He threw back his head, twisting his face from side to side, for the she-beast had released his shredded arm, and now her bloody barbs slashed his face and swiped across the throat he had so considerately exposed. One of her nails must have found his carotid artery, for Burns reported that Wilson’s screams abruptly ended in a gurgling report and a veritable geyser of blood, most of which cascaded in a robust stream into the monster’s waiting mouth. His head fell forward with a sickening thud onto the metal bars. A final paroxysmal spasm of his legs, and Wilson lay still.
Too late did Smith remember the Colt revolver strapped to his side. By the time he’d freed it from the holster, she had ripped two bars from their heavy bolts, snapping the reinforced boards “as easily as a man snaps a toothpick,” the same two bars directly beneath Wilson’s lifeless body; his arm was free finally, but too late, and he tumbled into that noisome void to the hold below, where her companion, roused by the bedlam and, no doubt, the acrid smell of fresh blood, waited for him.
Smith fired wildly as she, hanging by one claw, tore out two more bars with the other. Burns could not say if any of the shots found their target; he turned and ran. The boards shuddered beneath his feet. The passage reverberated with the roar of gunfire and Smith’s hysterical screams. As Burns scampered up the narrow stairs to the quarterdeck, the gunfire abruptly ended: Either Smith had run out of ammunition or she had heaved herself through the hole, and Smith, like Wilson, was a denizen of the living world no more.
In any case, when the Feronia was boarded by Union forces after her grounding, what was left of Smith could have fit, in Varner’s words, “into a gunnysack.”
At this point in his grim narration Varner paused. All color had drained from his countenance, and his body shook beneath the sheets. Memories can bring comfort to the old and infirm, but memories can also be implacable foes, a malicious army of temporal ghosts forever pillaging the long-sought-after peace of our twilight years. He had begged Warthrop not to make him recall those events he could not forget, for some recollections, as I myself know all too well, remain fresh in the mind whole decades after they are born.
Yet when he fell silent, Warthrop did not press him to go on. Perhaps he understood-as I have come to, much to my regret-that once we set forth upon certain lanes of our memory, there is no turning aside or doubling back. They must be traversed unto their bitter terminuses. It is that same compulsion that forces us to look at the terrible accident or stare with shameful curiosity at the pitiful victim in a circus sideshow. The memories of those dreadful final days aboard the doomed Feronia possessed her captain; he did not possess them.
“We stole below, brought up all the food and water we could muster, and sealed off the lower decks,” the old man gasped finally. “Posted armed guards around the clock. The weather turned in our favor; with a leeward wind and fair skies, we made good time. The days were quiet, but ‘twas an eerie peace, a deceitful calm, for once the sun sank below the foredeck, the pounding began and that infernal, incessant screeching. We could hear them, you see, testing the very boards beneath our feet, knocking and scraping and probing as they searched for weaknesses in the wood. The men drew lots for the night watch, but the winners could sleep no more than an hour or two, and each of those hours seemed longer than a day, and the nights longer than a year. The crew was divided and quarreled bitterly among themselves. Some thought we should abandon ship, take to the lifeboats and pray for rescue. ‘We set her alight,’ they said. ‘Burn her to the waterline!’ Others averred that our only hope lay in a surprise assault, attacking them while they slept. ‘’Tis only a matter of time till they break through,’ they said. ‘Better to face them at a time and place of our choosing.’ I vetoed both these propositions. We were making excellent time; the ship seemed to be holding up under their assault; and by abandoning her we would only be trading the hazard of sharing Wilson ’s fate for the hazards of sunstroke and starvation. We sailed on.”