The Glassborough Chronicle, part 3 of 3

Read part 1 here; read part 2 here.

or,
The Time-Fliers

“As the spring crept into summer my days seemed imbued with an uncanny quality from which, despite my best efforts, I could not struggle free. I had all my life believed that the moral arc of the world bent towards justice, but in recent months I had begun to fear that his faith in science had doomed Edward to an existence which he scarcely deserved. To me and to his family (though for far different reasons) he had become something of an artefact, lost somewhere outside of our control.

“Towards the beginning of June, dear readers, I felt the final touch of Edward’s hand and read the last words that he would write with me as his intended audience. I was returning from a proceeding during which I had been compelled to defend the inheritance of a bachelor whom in normal circumstances I would treat with the disdain his personal character merited. After a significant tug at my laudanum flask I exited the hansom cab and proceeded to walk the last stretch home along Storey’s Gate, the tall red townhouses fusing above me into a single monolithic structure overhanging the pavement.

“At the corner of Old Queen’s Road I stepped, as I customarily did, across the square-shaped patch of grass which separated the servants’ entrance to our modest house from the flue and the pavement of Storey’s Gate. I sensed as I reached the door a fluttering—little more than a movement accompanied by a bat’s wing mutter—emanating from the kitchen chimneystack. In a crevice between two red bricks there was, I saw, a note.

“I was gripped by the same sense of disinclination that had come over me after I had so casually taken the journals from Edward’s laboratory. Was this some form of rapprochement for the misuse of my dear friend’s messages? The note was packed tightly into the wedge between some dried mortar and the keystone above the arch of the flue. I removed it and read, in Edward’s hand:

‘“This city, beautiful though empty. She was lost, jumping ahead. Perhaps I will see you again, in the present-time.

E.

“Written indistinctly below the message was what could only be a date—the numbers 14/8/35. If Edward were indeed trapped, if Fitzpatrick’s potion had by virtue of its quantity been wrenching him from one point in his history to another, then he was now cast fifty years into our past.

“I turned the note in my hands over and, simple solicitor or not, it was immediately clear that my dear friend was not being cast further backwards but was in fact somewhere outside even my comprehension. The reverse of this small, papery artefact—glossy as though finished with some kind of protective veneer—was a daguerreotype of a kind I had never before seen. Vivid beyond the capacity of science, it was unlike even the most lucid portraits I had seen of the American President Lincoln or the Houses of Parliament by the Thames.

“The image was fully coloured and glowed—glistened—more than the place in the portrait should have done were I there myself. In the foreground the image was all water, a deep blue growing to black just below some sort of iron railing. But further into the background—miles further but as clear as they would have seemed to my own eyes—there soared buildings taller than any cathedral spire or monument I had encountered. Between them rushed carriages, grey and black and other colours, drawn much like Edward had described under their own steam, free (or so I imagined) from the necessity of horses and their attendant stench.

“Above even the tallest tower the sky was coated in cumulonimbus clouds, layered between the gridded structures and a cerulean-blue sky. Even fifty years from now, some things remained the same, I told myself. I crushed the portrait into my overcoat, touching as I did so the familiar shape of the key in my outer pocket, and imagined dear Edward doused in the mechanisms, the magic, of things to come but regretting always the things he had lost along the way.

❡      ❡      ❡

“The peak of summer came and I was incapacitated with the tremendous heat. As we often did, Mildred and I took several weeks to recuperate and to remain out of the clinging foetid air that inhabited the parks and brougham carriages of London. Though I thought daily of Edward and of the incomprehensible date of his last missive, I felt powerless to help him. Where once a glass of Glendronach and a sympathetic ear could assuage his worries, I had no doubt that he was now beyond such ministrations.

“In the obscurest corner of my study I settled into the rocking-chair below my portrait; a painting of myself looking rather regal at the now unimaginable age of twenty-three. On a table to the left of the chair was a translucent decanter full of tincture and a glass half-filled. I rested my hand on the table and pulled from the shelf behind me a leather-bound volume fastened shut with twine. With a brittle sound I untied and opened the book to the last page so that I might examine once more the portrait of this urban, foreign, future landscape.

“My skin rustled on the vellum of Fitzpatrick’s papers and I thought of Edward’s specimens—dead and dusty—in his basement study. Fifty years hence I too would be gathering dust somewhere beneath the soil of this city. Perhaps I will see you again, Edward’s note had said. This struck me as more than wishful thinking—even at his most fanciful my dear friend was not a nostalgic—and the words elicited in me the same urge which had drawn me to the mahogany cabinet that past spring.

Perhaps I will see you again, in the present-time. I finished the glass beside me and waited for the rheumatical pains in my foot to subside (aggravated as they were by the heat). I wanted to sleep, to dream the peaceful dreams that only the opium would provide. I could slip at this very moment like a raindrop, slip into the past or the future.

“—What, though, are you going to do, Henry? I suppressed a giggle at this hysterical state of affairs and a hiccough of my chest brought me close to spilling the book of notes onto the floor. Today is the first oft August, I told myself. I replaced the daguerreotype and closed the book on the uncannily-dated image. 14/8/35. I have a fortnight.

❡      ❡      ❡

“The humidity hung about me and commingled with the summer smoke as I arrived at 17 Salisbury Road on August 14th. The heat brought always a heavy atmosphere to the city, though in the decades I had lived there London had thankfully lost some of the organic stench that characterised its summer months.

“Using the key I had obtained against my better judgement, I unlocked the house door and an attempted to remain inconspicuous by stepping through a two feet-wide gap between the limn and the lock. Sunlight was being filtered through the drawing room and hallway drapes and its angle—I am sure Edward had remarked on this at one time or another—created a red hue throughout the ground floor of the house. Its warmth, I thought, was deceptive.

“Directly in front of me was the stairway leading to the private chambers on the first floor above. To my right were windows overlooking the alley and the entrance to Edward’s subterranean study, to my left the drawing room where Henrietta’s pendant had so mysteriously reappeared. Stepping into the drawing room I felt as though I were re-entering the scene of some crime; in the creak-creak-click of my feet followed by my cane I sensed an old house that was less than desirous of my presence.

“The intrusion, I decided, was warranted. In point of fact this decision had been reached long before I found myself in Salisbury Road that evening. On the furthest interior wall of the drawing room— running parallel to the front edifice of the house—was a door, concealed in part by the black finish of the piano standing in front of it. This entrance had in the past led to the stony room below. The narrowest of edges protruded from the wall and, fitting my fingers carefully around this lip, I pulled until the hinges just behind the imported Steinway tore at the wood and the door popped open to a strangling, reverberative chorus.

“Even with the absence of light the brief set of steep spiral stairs wound their way just as I remembered into the basement. I set about my descent with some trepidation and with a crescendoing fear less exacerbated than borne aloft by the opiates in my blood. Exerting pressure on the bare brick walls around the staircase and leaning my walking stick as near to the edge of each step as I dare, I spun my way down and into the gaslit study.

“I paused at the last step. Why were the gas lanterns running? In the low light cast around the stone walls were shadows and crooks which I could not recall having seen during my most recent visit to Edward’s study. The cabinets of medical paraphernalia situated to the left of the spiral steps were as dust-covered as ever and beyond stood the mirror in which I had seen that grotesque portrait of my friend just before his disappearance. In the centre of the room hung the solitary light source, directly above the central table and illuminating in a coppery glow the heavy bottle that had been filled neatly, filled to the brim with that damned stuff. The Phillips beaker remained empty beside its larger sibling and I felt a shudder at my having ingested any of this diabolical potion.

“Reaching out not without some apprehension I clasped a hand around the narrow neck of the bottle. Lifting it I held it carefully between my eyes and the gaslight and gazed through the autumnal viscous liquid in hopes of some trace of an explanation; some hope, or so I thought, of salvation for my friend. Enclosed between the cold stones that night I could not comprehend that I, as much as my dear Edward, was in need of salvation.

“At this stage, my friends, I must pause to tell you that my nerves were rather wracked and certainly in need of a supplemental drop or two of laudanum. The tales of Dr Jonathan Fitzpatrick as told in his extensive, mesmeric journals had somehow crept from my dreams onto the edges of my waking mind and were no longer, as far as I was concerned, fictitious. These stories flew through my head daily and had fused into some ghastly amalgam with Edward’s fate. If only, I thought, I could find Mr Thomson or Fitzpatrick, they could…

“—Henry. I stopped to check my senses at the sound of my name, a spoken hiss in the dark. I knew for a fact that Henrietta had returned home to Hertfordshire and I was sure I had laid the deadbolt across the front door.

“I replaced the bottle on the table and turned slowly in a clockwise motion: before me the bottle, under gaslight and against a backdrop of specimen cases; more cabinets of dusty medical journals and the neighbouring alleyway entrance to the basement room; the spiral staircase and the glass in the corner followed by more specimens on the oblong table where Edward had hidden the viscous potion. I leaned an arm against the chair back.

“—Henrrry, I… came failing through the air like the sound of an expiring creature. A subhuman hum shook the table and the miasma of fluid at the lip of the bottle made its miniature wave. A tremor ran across my chest as though my heart were beating to escape the confines of my diaphragm. I raised my left hand to my temple, a misplaced gesture of self-comfort, before catching in the strips of light between my fingers and somewhere in the corner between the mirror and the side-table a streak of movement.

“I turned and walked to the echo of feet and cane thud-thud-clinking towards the glass. Reflected in the top half of the surface I could make out my own figure, haloed as it was in a failing green light and slowly advancing. I was less than a foot from the glass when a whisper more tangible than audible dashed around me, a sibilant rush coming from my left which briefly forked to surround me before knocking with a force greater than seemed possible into the mirror.

“My reflection flexed and warped in the gaslight for several seconds and…

“—Henrrry, I am… The noise sounded again, this time with more force. At the far right edge of the mirror where previously there had been only a smudge of darkness and the barely visible brim of my hat was now a swirl of colour like an unfolding sheet, creases and furls which, though bathed in the green-black glow of the room, gave off an unnatural light of their own.

“—Unst…Henry… the voice faded as the lines coalesced into a picture—more alive still than the daguerreotype crushed between the brickwork of the flue—until of their own accord they drew beneath the glass an outline, in profile, of a cadaverous, almost monochrome face. Initially there emerged a jaw line, followed by the protuberance of an aquiline nose flared at the nostrils, a mouth thin and straight and—finally—the sunken, ghastly eyes of Edward Willis.

“—Am unstuck… Henr… The face contorted with each word as though a portrait come to hideous life. I gazed open-mouthed at the visage of my friend trapped in some unphysical aether which I could not penetrate, from which he could not be freed. The gaslit reflection now occupied the full length of the mirror—by now, friends, I was powerless to move—and fingertips pressed to the point of whiteness against the other side of the glass. An appalling inverse of my dear Edward.

I am unstuck… I stepped one thud closer to the apparition and its grey irises followed the movement.

“—Edward? I said. It seemed to comprehend speech even from its netherworld. I babbled: —The picture and the key… your letter, did you…?

“—Cannot go back, Henry. It seemed to approach the other side of the glass. Only advance. I raised my hand but hesitated before laying my clammy palm against the mirror.

“—Then the daguerreotype originates—will originate—in some city, some future that you inhabit? I said. A grisly nod revealed the white underbelly of Edward’s eyes. The reflection began to flicker and then seemed to laugh. For the first and only time that night I considered that perhaps I was experiencing some form of hysterical fit brought on by the tremors in my chest.

“—Alone…Up to you… He clung to the edges of the living portrait and I realised that he had not been laughing. His eyes glistened with a tiny wave of tears.

“The closer Edward pressed to the glass the less distinct he became. The whisper of those three words ringing in my ears seemed also to fade and a draught drew its way—growing in intensity—somewhere in the void between me and the mirror. Fearing that he would vanish once again and believing that I more than anyone owed Edward a chance of liberation from these temporal constraints, I felt the movement behind my eyes which had throughout my life signalled that it was time to act.

“In a moment of warped logic I have never come to understand, I pirouetted back towards the table and took three brisk steps up to the glass bottle and the conical beaker which lay beside it. In doing so my cane fell and clattered across the floor, the sound of wood on stone rattling across the confines of the basement. I clasped in my right hand the neck of the bottle and in my left supported its base, then—watching the while as the gelatinous fluid swelled and spilled from the open mouth—I turned and heaved with a strength I thought long past and let go the bottle.

“It flew from my hands twirling a coppery stream behind it and skewered into and then through the mirror, shards of glass spilling now from the frame, now from the shattered container. The ghastly mask in the mirror ruptured under the impact and split into tiny fragments. Amongst the noise resonating against the walls of specimens and journals I thought I could hear—or feel—the sound of a voice fading into the harsh, destructive background noise. As the reverberations decayed I leaned back on the table and felt a horribly oppressive stillness.

“At my feet and covering the cold floor were shards of glass drowned in the potion. The damned stuff flowed almost opaquely now between the stones in small, silent rivers. I stepped back to avoid its approach and walked with some difficulty over to my cane. Bending down I recalled the stack of tumbled journals which had been scattered across the larger table and the ground like flakes of dead skin. I wondered what might have been the fate of Dr Jonathan Fitzpatrick.

“I creaked upward and tugged free the deadbolt on the cellar door. As I pushed out into the doorwell to Edward’s study, the August evening heat descended and brought with it the odour of horse manure and sewer water. I wandered for close to an hour before a solitary Hackney carriage on the corner of Lissom Grove decided my shambolic figure was worth the fare. Climbing in I rapped on the roof with my cane and nothing—not the braying of horses nor the calls of women in the sultry summer streets—could shatter the half-dead trance glowering over the corner of that cab.

❡      ❡      ❡

“Dear friends—you who have so patiently listened to and so meticulously documented this tale—you may be searching for some grand meaning or significance in the fate of Edward M. Willis. I fear that I can provide neither. As I recollect this story it is July in the year of 1886. It is another airless, malodorous summer in the city of London and I am reminded constantly of that evening in Salisbury Road when the glass was shattered, the story was ended and my dear friend Edward finally—as my mother used to say—passed through the veil.

“I hope, as you listen and transcribe, that my words might someday find an outlet amongst your other, more noteworthy, publications, and that my brief account of the last days of my friend, the writer and naturalist, might sit alongside The Time-Fliers, or A Story of the Present-Time on Heddy’s bookshelves in the red-hued warmth of the drawing room in the Salisbury Road.”

❡      The End      ❡

Cross-posted from [untitled]

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The Glassborough Chronicle, part 2 of 3

dlrhurleyRead part 1 here

or,
The Time-Fliers

letteri woke some hours later. My pallor was such that I would have frightened not only Scrooge but Mr Dickens himself a little nearer to the grave. I stood and—for the first time in a number of months—felt not a flicker of pain in my right leg. No doubt the opiates in the strange suspension were still at work somewhere in my blood.

“Walking unaided I circled the central table, the gaslight now burning too low to follow anything further afield than my own hands. Edward was gone; not a single trace of his person or movements was visible in the darkness and at the very bottom of my stomach I felt a churning more (so I thought) due to my friend’s absence than to the presence of his potion attacking my constitution.

“The Philips beaker lay on its side on the larger table, the bottle—its contents unnaturally still—sat to one side and Fitzpatrick’s papers were spread across the surface like a reptile’s scales. What I assumed were the journals Edward had mentioned were stacked half on the table top and half strewn across the cold floor where Edward had been moments (or what I experienced as moments) earlier.

“Without the aid of my cane I could not ordinarily have reached the floor of the study. Once the dampened journals were in hand I felt an unease about opening them to the most vital pages, the pages Edward had very likely memorised. Idly flipping through vellum pages in the empty darkness, I came inevitably to the diagrams and lists associated with the potion; though I recognised little of the medicinal nature of the substance I read below and on the following pages Fitzpatrick’s descriptions—vivid beyond even the most eidetic of memories—of distant imaginings both past and future. Not a single sheet contained corrections, as though the writings had been the product of some kind of mesmeric trance.

“After some moments I had retrieved my cane, scanned by the first glimmers of daylight my pneumonic surroundings and gathered Fitzpatrick’s and my dear Edward’s papers to my chest. I struggled to carry these out of the cellar and around to the house’s entrance, where I was greeted (friends, imagine my indecorous appearance!) by the sight of Mary’s sister Henrietta who, after a politic knocking, produced her own set of keys and unlocked the door to 17 Salisbury Road. She was entering as I reached the concave doorstep.

“—Miss Riordan, I said whilst attempting a bow.

“—Mr Glassborough, sir. She was a little less than frantic but clearly too anxious to question my sudden appearance at Edward’s home or the sheaves of paper in my hands. —Have you been visiting with my brother? she asked.

“—No, madam. Or rather, not any longer. Yesterday afternoon he and I had a rather impromptu meeting, but he seems to have… slipped away overnight. I added: —You have not seen him?

“She shook her head and explained that she had taken an overnight cab from her residence somewhere in Hertfordshire —I forget the location exactly—to London, at Edward’s request and expense.

“—His note was…. she paused. I were not going to come only that he worded it so strangely.

“She handed me a folded piece of paper and somewhat truculently I opened it and read:

“‘Dearest Heddy,—

Please forgive my recent impropriety in sending you away without explanation. Know only that my grief will soon find its own grave and I will be freed of my present troubles. I ask of you one final favour. Come to London as soon as you can; I have provided for your—and perhaps for my own—future.

Yours, etc,

Edward.’

“Written hastily in what was unmistakeably Edward’s hand, I realised that his plan had been decisive though impulsive. Sending Henrietta away only to recall her several days later was not in my friend’s character—not unless something grave were about to happen. I shuddered more at the content of the note than at the February chill. Miss Riordan asked whether I should help her search the Salisbury Road residence for trace of Edward’s presence and we thereafter spent close to an hour opening doors and creaking wooden stairways for any sense, however imperceptible, of our friend.

“Though we found some manner of sympathy in our concern for Edward, not a single footprint or any further explanation for his disappearance was unearthed. As I bade Henrietta farewell I collected my documents—papers, diagrams and formulae that might shed some light on the darkened basement of E.M. Willis—and stepped into the mid-morning light in search of a Hackney carriage. What remained of Edward’s family, sadly smiling at the doorway, would surely inherit this little house on the Salisbury Road, I thought.

❡      ❡      ❡

“As spring melted the white blanket in which the city had been swaddled, I returned to work and felt—not without the pangs of a Christian guilt that Edward would surely have mocked—that I had abandoned my lost friend. I had studied the journals left to him by Dr Jonathan Fitzpatrick but in them found nothing more than whimsy, fantasy told as though it were science and spread with the thinnest veneer of credibility.

“The narrative describing his experience with this potion was clearly the base stuff for Edward’s novella and, in turn, for the viscous opiate liquid sitting so unnaturally still below the drawing room of Salisbury Road. I could not, however, vouch for the accuracy of Fitzpatrick’s notes given that they were written under the influence of this drug; nor could I quash my suspicions that Edward’s potion was far from identical to Fitzpatrick’s. These thoughts commixed in my mind with my second reading of The Time Fliers; I felt almost as lost as poor Edward, his fiction and his reality hanging in solution with my own.

“As refuge I turned to my work and to my family. Monthly I visited Henrietta and was content for this to be my only contact with the winter past. In tending to petty disputes and attending court proceedings I found a pretence of normalcy, but my mind was constantly preoccupied with the specifics of this mystery—a preoccupation as much with the mechanics of my friend’s disappearance as with the physical absence which I should be mourning. I nonetheless locked Fitzpatrick’s and Edward’s journals inside a cabinet in the corner of my office, in hopes that my ageing senses would soon banish the thought of them from my mind.

“But on May 17th 1885, months after the snowy day of Edward’s disappearance and in the weeks between my social calls on Henrietta Riordan, I was compelled once more to this mahogany cabinet and to the bundle of documents sealed within it. The dark wood—though lit by spring light from my office windows—had assumed an ominous tone, as though in the swirls of the wood grain there were some pattern attempting to formulate a message.

“I unlocked the drawer simply with the intention of examining the contents. The papers remained bound vertically and horizontally with a length of twine, but beneath the cross at the centre of the stack was a rectangular shape I did not recognise. I placed the pile of notes on my desk and, with care, pulled an unaddressed envelope out from under the knot of string. Its appearance was somewhat of a mystery, and I thought I did not know it yet, any incident related even tangentially to Edward was destined only for mystery. The envelope was of a thick paper—almost paperboard—and inside was a sheet folded twice so that it concertinaed to a third of its full size. I unfolded the note and read:

“‘With M., all the time in the world once again. You are missing from our little reunion, but thank you, my own dear Thomson!

Yours, E.’

“—My God, I murmured. Curving its upper case to the right and with a distinguishing flourish on the final letter, I could all but picture Edward’s left hand moving across the sheet as he wrote the words. In the top right hand corner was printed a date, Monday February 2nd, 1875. I need not remind you, friends, conversant as you all are with the chronology of time, that this date preceded the current one by more than a decade. I might also stress that the remnants of Fitzpatrick’s and Edward’s documents were contained inside a locked drawer of a cabinet within my locked office for the three months previous.

“Was Edward alive, physically occupying the same space he had only months ago and yet temporally (I have only since learned the application of this term, strange as this might seem) his presence had been cast backward by ten years? This lunatic explanation seemed no less credible than the notion that he had remained hidden from me and from Heddy for months only to steal a note into a sealed cabinet in a sealed room of my office.

“I replaced the note and the envelope and went to a small table occupying the corner opposite the dark wooden cabinet. The glass vial of opium lay next to a bottle of spirit and with a hand aching from the spread of rheumatism I carried out the familiar motions of mixing my tincture, combining bottle and vial in temperate measures. In this simple act of medicinal creation I steadied both my hand and my nerves. I sipped the mixture, muttering:

“—With M. Wherever you might be, Edward, I hope you are indeed reunited.

❡      ❡      ❡

“Another week was spent in pursuit of very little at all. I completed what work I could whilst glancing with the chime of each half hour at the pile of notes—medicinal scrawl, incomprehensible diagrams, personal correspondence and much more—hoping that another envelope might appear beneath the frayed string. Nothing, of course, did.

“At the end of the week I attended to my monthly social call on Edward’s sister-in-law Henrietta. Despite our meetings feeding a somewhat sympathetic (though certainly not intimate) relationship, my appearance that afternoon in Salisbury Road was greeted only with a remote and anxious glance. In the drawing room the mousy girl—woman seemed still an overstatement—requested that I sit whilst she worriedly rummaged across the top of a tall bureau standing on little more than the points of her toes.

“She drew down an object with a tug—suggesting that it might have snagged somewhere out of sight—and proffered it me in her outstretched palm. Strung on silver-coloured thread was a pendant oval in shape and carved from some form of light but stoutly packed wood. Examining it keenly, I asked Heddy what I was supposed to be looking for. Perhaps another message engrained in tiny swirls, I thought.

“—This was given me by Edward, she said. It was a birthday gift some five or six years ago.

“I tilted my head and displayed what I hoped was an inquisitive expression. –But I haven’t seen the thing (it has been missing, you see) since nearly two years ago. I believed I lost it on our last trip to Dublin.

“She placed the object in my hand. Turning it over and examining the necklace I was surprised to find that its weight was far greater than its outward appearance suggested. A thin line dissected the breadth of the oval. I placed thumb and forefinger around the top of the pendant and twisted until—despite Heddy’s objections that I would break the thing—the wood popped open and revealed a metal object embedded in the bottom half. I pulled it out of its cocoon.

“—It looks like Edward’s house key, I said. The greening rusted metal around the circular shaft I recognised at once, though I was reluctant to broach my rather fantastical opinions as to who might have returned it. It had appeared, so Heddy told me, two days earlier, snagged on the splintered edge of the dark bureau in Edward’s drawing room.

“—When I arrived on Thursday evening I came to pull the drapes closed and there it was, she said, hanging and glittering in the street light. As though it had simply materialised and was waiting for me.

“—And the key? I examined it more closely whilst my companion stared absently at the two parts of the halved locket.

“—In all honesty, Mr Glassborough, I have no idea…

“When Edward had presented the thing to his sister, the pendant had to her knowledge been whole. He had, in fact, consoled her the very day of its disappearance, she told me, recombining the two segments in her hands and rising to rehang it on the moulding of the bureau—thinking perhaps that it ought to remain in its rightful place. I too stood and strode towards the piano. Feigning to place the key on the top of the piano’s square frame I slipped it instead into a pocket of my overcoat, hoping that it might prove of some use.

“Though Edward’s note had suggested—at least to my simple solicitor’s mind—that he intended the key for Heddy, providing for her future by entrusting to her his home and his property, I felt justified in my holding very literally the means to unlocking Edward’s fate. I consoled myself with the thought that, no matter how strange his disappearance had been, I was still somehow in touch with my friend.”

Cross-posted from [untitled]
Part 3 to follow.

The Glassborough Chronicle, part 1 of 3

dlrhurleyor,
The Time-Fliers

letteri suppose the story begins, as so many stories of our time, with a tragedy; a death. Mary, the wife of my dear friend the writer and naturalist Edward Willis, passed through the veil—as my mother used to say—on November 2nd 1884. Edward was quite distraught, though the decorum which his professed faith and which society expected from him meant that his grief was allowed expression only in his innermost circle. And so I felt obliged to offer him what I could in terms of solace. Most often this took the form of a serving of Glendronach or an attentive ear during his recital of some new idea for a story.

“On December 22nd of that year Mary Willis would have turned 47 years old. In her finite wisdom Mrs Glassborough had sent a letter inviting Edward to join our meagre Christmas celebrations earlier that week, and though I welcomed my friend’s company I was worried for his health. A thin layer of powdery snow had blanketed a good proportion of London and made cab rides slow and cold. The cane-thin frame of Edward Willis was ill-prepared for this widower’s winter.

“Nevertheless he arrived intact; we dined and spoke, Edward held forth and seemed in better spirits than he had been since Mary’s death. This remarkable change of mien he attributed to his having resumed his writing.

“—My craft, Henry, may well prove to be my saviour, he said.

“—I would hesitate to put it that bluntly on today of all days, I replied. Edward went on to summarise what, at this stage, was hardly more than note-taking for a story wildly out of the ordinary and yet founded on the principles of science and natural history. As always he drew on his training as a physician and on what—to me—were obscure writings on natural history. As he rounded off his speech and, with a modest glance, placed his hands on the table top I said:

“—Martians, Edward?

“—As a neologism quite sound, wouldn’t you say? I acquiesced.

“—And the idea is that they share a heritage with man?

“—Yes, exactly. His Irish accent—his intonation did not merit the term ‘brogue’—made this seem all the more reasonable. If, he suggested, man had developed from lower mammals, surely there was also the possibility that creatures similar to or even vastly different than man might have grown out of their predecessors on other worlds.

“The death of his beloved wife made me reluctant to weigh down Edward’s buoyant mood with questions. The fantastical was his preferred domain and I could not blame him. If, he continued, life were possible on such distant rocks then was it not such an illogical leap backwards to claim that all life had sprung from the same place? Whether this was the hand of God or the head of Zeus he did not say.

“Mildred returned holding a tray with two glasses of deep-coloured brandy and placed it in front of us. She must have recognised in me what she always termed ‘your dangerous frown’ and, before taking a seat, feigned to recall an urgent task she was neglecting elsewhere in the house. As she exited the cast of her face made it clear that marital obedience was not driving this particular decision.

“I raised my glass, Edward following suit, and said: —To better spirits. We had toasted, now we drank. But my dear friend was clearly debating within, as was his wont, whether he ought to divulge some new tale or forgotten secret.

“—Henry, I have to tell you, he said. These past weeks I have spent not with Heddy, but rather with myself and my imaginings. Henrietta, or Heddy as he called her, was Edward’s sister-in-law and was at least nominally in charge of his and his household’s care now that Mary was no longer with us.

“—I sent her home. She was as grief-stricken as I, and I had my own work to keep my company. But I want you to come and see with your own eyes. Please, if you can bear the inconvenience… read this first.

❡      ❡      ❡

“Now the book he left for me you will, my friends, most probably have heard of. Unlike many of my countrymen I myself had read The Time Fliers upon its publication in 1878, out of both curiosity and loyalty to my acquaintance of the time, Dr. E.M. Willis. It would be the fictionalist’s vanity to say that Time Fliers proved the foundation for our friendship. But the negative reception that it received was laced in most quarters with a blithe disrespect for Edward and for his imagination when—to my mind—his imagination was what set him apart from his contemporaries, founded as it was on science and natural understanding.

“Though not for the London literary salons, Edward’s novel appealed to sufficient people to prove a minor success over the course of a year. The chronicle—for this is the most accurate word—tells of an unnamed inventor who stumbles upon a theorem, no more than an outline, left by his predecessor at a less-than-prestigious London university. This theorem proposes the manufacture of a substance liquid in nature that might allow its users to move back and forth not only in physical space but also in linear time.

“The inventor takes this theorem to his companion, and the tale’s narrator, one Mr Thomson. He and Thomson between themselves procure the elements required to produce this ‘potion’ (Edward’s term) in a quantity small enough to be ingested in the name of experimentation. Initially they experience only the vaguest sensations of déjà-vu, but during their carriage ride return to the inventor’s home their common visions step further and further away from the present until the pair is catapulted from past to future, unable to pull themselves back to the fulcrum of the cab ride through present-time London.

“As Edward put it, his protagonists ‘soon began to feel suffocated by the d—ed stuff.’ A moment in the childhood memory of Mr Thomson’s country home, filled with birds and turning leaves, gives way to a trek through the most primoriginal wastes of a past described with an almost gleeful lack of sanity or, indeed, sanitation. The inventor and Mr Thomson find themselves variously borne into the air by means of some automaton magic, soaring above a gridwork of charnel houses and industrial wastes, and trapped in the crush of a busy London street full of carriages drawn not by horses but by their own internal and, to our narrator, inexplicable mechanisms. These ‘motor-wagons’ (Edward’s neologisms were by definition a new, though not a recent, development) blare like a collective of animals and the two men tumble to relative safety only after hailing a nearby hackney carriage.

“In the briefest of epilogues our Time Fliers are separated, and whilst the narrator Mr Thomson comes unstuck and finds this future motor-carriage modify slowly around him, changing inch by inch into their present-day London cab ride through slanting spring rain, his companion is not so fortunate. In the years post-dating this trip Jeremiah Thomson finds echoes of his lost friend in the strangest places—letters left idly in church pews, scientific papers dropped into his lap during soporific fireside evenings—but it is their fate never to cross paths again.

❡      ❡      ❡

“Shortly after the New Year, when the snow blanketing the city had begun slowly to melt, I heard the clattering and braying of a brougham pulling up in the street below my office. Clad in a black cape more suited to the ballet than to an uninsulated carriage ride through Central London, Edward stepped down and climbed the few steps to the door directly beneath my window. I laid my papers in a desk drawer on the assumption (soon proven correct) that my friend’s impromptu visit was going to foreshorten my work for the day.

“Moments later Edward had stepped into the room and drawn the ghastly black cape from his shoulders to reveal nothing but an undershirt, halfway unbuttoned and hardly concealing the protrusions of his ribs beneath his mottled marble skin.

“—Henry, my dear friend, he said, placing a hand just above each corresponding crook in my arms. His eyes bright, a return to his former self perhaps at hand, he continued: —Did you read it? Did you take it all in?

“—Yes, of course. Though I’m not sure I understand, Edward. My second reading, I must say, was just as enthralling, but wh…

“—Good, good, he said. In that case you must join me for a drink. With an emaciated drama he swung his own person around and nudged mine by the elbow—a reticent animal, I—towards the door. In the hallway he replaced the cowl and balanced his top hat, old but functional, on his mop of greying curls. We reached the brougham, stepped in and headed for Edward’s residence in Salisbury Road.

❡      ❡      ❡

“At the cellar door of the Willis residence, situated in an alley to one side of the brick building that Mary and her husband had shared, I was greeted by the incongruous smells of ammonium and unlaundered clothing. I steadied myself with the aid of my cane (I suffer a form of metabolic arthritis in my right foot) and took three steps down to the door. Edward was already inside and had removed his hat and cape by the time I had fully taken in my remarkable surroundings.

“In the years before and for several after our initial acquaintance, my friend was a much sought-after London physician. He tended not only to my needs but to those of a large number of wealthy Londoners whilst working by night (‘nocturnally’; his word) on his writing, studies of creatures and behaviours that did not fall within the category of standard medical practice. In those years Edward’s study—both a laboratory of sorts and a refuge from the house proper—was an enclave of cabinets filled with books and journals, tables covered in medical instruments and sample tubes, etchings of tree roots and wasps bisected in black ink.

“But in the darkest month of the New Year and under the gaslight hanging from the centre of the stone ceiling the cellar was much changed. A glass stood in one corner of the room, in which I could see my grey self and the miasmas of snow on the door over my shoulder. The cabinets of curiosities—culled so Edward told me from museums forced into closure—were obscured now by a fine film of dust and on the square desk directly below the light, where once there was a host of indefinite medical instruments, stood only a single row of sample tubes and a sheaf of papers. Edward motioned for me to take the only seat in the room as he drew from over a long wooden table against the furthest wall a tarpaulin covering. Edward’s body, though narrow, disguised the items in the dimly-lit corner. He said:

“—I forced my little story on you not out of vanity, Henry. The origins of my novella, rather like the origins of all things, came not solely from my wild imaginings but from a certain number of historical facts. A constellation of such facts designed, it seems, to create Mr Thomson and his time-flying friend.

“—I… don’t follow you, I replied. I tapped my cane on the stone floor.

“Edward turned now from the shadowed corner holding in one hand a large bottle with a narrow opening, filled nearly to the brim with a copper-coloured liquid, and in the other a conical beaker with a glass stirrer tinkling delicately against its lip. He placed them upon the large table in the centre of the room alongside his papers and the sample tubes, lifting his head and pinning me with an excited gaze to my seat.

“—Henry. He smiled and nodded, expecting (so it seemed) that I might string together the pearls in front of me into a coherent narrative. He glowered in the gaslight and told me:

“—Some months after I moved with Mary to this corner of the city, and some years (might I add) before I embarked on such studies as you were accustomed to observing in this room, my good friend Jonathan Fitzpatrick passed away. Jonathan left to me a minor sum to aid me in my profession (the figure was insignificant by comparison to the wealth and knowledge he had acquired in the medical world) but more importantly he bequeathed to me his papers, gathered over a number of years spent in both Dublin and London as a student and then as a young physician.

“—Amongst the trappings and personalia were several sheets containing what I took to be a list of constituent parts for some medicine, perhaps an invention of Fitzpatrick’s. Opiates and ammonium I could make out by their chemical formulae but the other elements were a mystery, and one that worried me; the majority of my more learned friends were as baffled as I by Jonathan’s notes. I had begun after several days’ investigation to feel as though I were trapped in a poorly executed story, a Penny Dreadful with the bare bones of a plot and little more.

“—Nonetheless I persevered and—through less-than-reputable channels—procured the means to manufacture those chemicals which I could not legitimately obtain. Despite the crown’s legal interventions, there were then still many roads clear enough and land unchristian enough to provide for the darker aspects of our profession. I don’t regret it, Henry. Not if the promise in Jonathan’s notes holds true.

“—After I had returned with the final ingredient for this strange brew I sorted again through the papers in search of some instruction and, in doing so, came across Jonathan’s journals, printed in a neat handwriting and spanning several volumes and a number of years. I had, out of respect for my colleague and friend, left these untouched and unopened but my curiosity bore the better half of me to my study, papers in hand.

“—He professed in these journals to have produced a viable batch of this stuff—science forgive him—and to have tasted but a whisper of it one morning before being carried, alone as always, to his Harley Street office. So his journal tells, not ten minutes after his…experiment, he was pulled into a trance, a deep sleep that took him into the past and left the doors of perception open, left time flowing like a liquid into and out of his mind, swimming through his vision. I was, Henry, quite frightened and yet peculiarly exhilarated by my friend’s words.

“—But as my writing grew in importance and Mary’s health declined I lay aside my studies in this place. The stone underfoot grew colder and the specimens grew further layers of dead skin over their own. My natural histories found an outlet in several science journals and eventually The Time Fliers was finished and published. In my mind’s eye—and now you must see it, too—Thomson and I were one and the same, and Jonathan Fitzpatrick became my unfortunate inventor. My ‘potion’, so I thought, was just a fantasy, but coming back down here, back to these papers. This damned stuff…

“—This damned stuff, Henry.

“Edward paused and lifted the bottle from the table.

“—If he was right, this damned stuff might take me back, and in doing so…bring her back.

“The liquid made a miniature wave at the roof of the bottle as Edward held it in his hand. He produced—from where, I confess, I did not see—a tiny funnel such as he had used years ago when mixing laudanum for my ailments, and placed it in the mouth of the smaller container. As I watched the viscous substance pour in a perfect arc into the conical beaker I glimpsed in the glass across the room a gas-lit reflection of the profile of Edward Willis, which to this day I wish I had not seen but cannot erase from my memory.

“He proffered me the half-filled vessel whilst he withdrew from his belt a flask which, it seemed, already contained the stuff. He said:

“—Henry, my friend. Nothing remains for me here, now. There are no words that need to be said, no things that need to be known; explanations only weigh us down. I ask only that I might request your companionship this one last time.

“He drew from the flask and leaned his frail upper body on the table behind him. Dear friends, as you might have guessed, I could not abandon my friend; I followed him into the mouth of this strange tale. First tentatively I put my lips to those of the glass in my hand and then with abandon I tasted the last sensation of that afternoon, the viscous liquid lining my insides, and burnt into my mind the image of the gaunt figure in the glass, the last time I would see Edward M. Willis.”

Cross-posted from [untitled]
Parts 2 and 3 to follow.

I Think Jesus

I think Jesus knows I’m nuts
so why would he arraign me
in front of all those saints on high

so sane they’ll never see me
skipping down the road  at dawn
and not a soul behind me.

Funnel clouds may tear through hell
but not the ones inside me.
They come and go all on their own

as if  they can’t abide me.
Today they’re off to New Orleans
so batten down the hatches.

When they return they’ll churn again
whirligigs inside me.
Yet every day when I get up

I know this much for certain:
I think Jesus knows I’m nuts
so why would he arraign me?

* * * * *

Nominated for Best of the Net and Pushcart prizes, Donal Mahoney has had poetry and fiction published in Dr. Hurley’s Snake-Oil Cure and other publications in North America, Europe, Asia and Africa. Some of his work can be found at http://eyeonlifemag.com/the-poetry-locksmith/donal-mahoney-poet.html

His other contributions to Snake-Oil Cure can be found here.

Dr. Hurley’s Digest, Vol. III, Issues 15-17

We’ve had some great  new writers as well as old hands at Snake-Oil HQ over the past two weeks. Here’s what you missed:

 

Monday – Poetry

Wednesday – Poetry

Friday – Fiction

Friday – Poetry

 

Stay tuned for some exciting Dr. H news coming up over the next couple weeks!

Let Any Agnostic Provide a Reply

After reading too much Aquinas

Would an aphid reside in an onager’s ear
if the onager’s master spoke Twi?
Or a Gascony scop with a leper elope
if a civet leapt out of a tree?
You doubt it? Read Thomas and see.

Would an addax in Denmark gyrate
if an emu in Sweden bore freight?
Or an eland in Chile complain
if jerboas in Goa refrain?
You doubt it? Read Thomas and see.

For really I thought ‘twas the onager taught
the aphid the tenor of Twi, and that
Gascony scops with Norwegians eloped
when Danes had lepers to tea.
You doubt it? Read Thomas and see.

* * * * *

Nominated for Best of the Net and Pushcart prizes, Donal Mahoney has had poetry and fiction published in Dr. Hurley’s Snake-Oil Cure and other publications in North America, Europe, Asia and Africa. Some of his work can be found at http://eyeonlifemag.com/the-poetry-locksmith/donal-mahoney-poet.html

His other contributions to Snake-Oil Cure can be found here.

Something About the Days Getting Shorter

Just before Ranulph begins shooting the crows, I tell Sarah that the birds know about the absence of light.

She stares out the window, transfixed by the wheeling cloud, her hands wrapped around her teacup. Her knuckles are the colour of boiled meat. With her head turned this way, in profile, she appears in silhouette, and doesn’t seem so insane.

“They wheel around like that to bring the darkness in,” I go on helpfully, “they drag the winter here. You never see this many crows in the wintertime.”

She nods. She understands. She is clever, despite the hereditary curse, with her slick brown hair and quick green eyes. She has a jewelled stare. Men in the street seek out her face, and watch the horizon there.

The clamour penetrates the double glazing, a raucous shrieking that overlaps in and around itself, amplified by the short distance between the earth and the sky in this particular part of the country. Sarah and I are cocooned by hoarse screaming.  It fills up the air between us and makes me feel slightly dizzy in a gentle way; the waves of vertigo that creep up from your knees at the top of the stairs.

*

Do you know the etymology of vertigo? It comes from vertere, to turn. The room, the birds, their voices – the world turns around us.

She shivers slightly and looks away, retreating to the sideboard with her cup, her bare feet making floppy fish sounds on the parquet. She doesn’t say it but I know what’s causing her so much distress: she worries about how the birds don’t collide. In itself it seems unnatural. I don’t explain theories of flocking to her, the laws of separation, alignment and cohesion – she wouldn’t understand. I don’t tell her either that a group of crows is called a murder, though this term usually appears in poetry rather than scientific contexts.

I continue to stare at the vertiginous sky, hands thrust into the pockets of my slacks. We are in the dining room, the room furthest south with a large bay  of floor-to-ceiling windows that look out onto the expanse of the estate. From where I stand to the main road is a distance of more than a mile.

“I think you’re lying,” she says, almost smothering her voice with the clunk of the cup on mahogany. I may have no depth perception but I’m not deaf. Her voice shakes. I know that she will have a fit this afternoon, and will possibly require restraining.

I wait until I hear her leave before I turn to check that she’s gone. Moments later the plumbing begins to creak from upstairs. This is a house that whines.

This is when Ranulph appeared on the widows walk with his blackmarket G3 and started firing at the birds. It was a ridiculous gun, and he should never have had it. Have you ever seen one? For some reason that day my brother had it on semi auto, and the rounds came out with an almost refined regularity. After a second or two of that, Ranulph realised what was wrong and switched the settings, releasing a streak of cacophony. It was a noisy massacre.

*

I have only one eye. An accident at birth, involving my father. One eye, a weeping blue, and the other, a maw of flesh and darkness, a pucker of wrinkles. I watched the falling bodies with my single eye until the lawn seemed crowded with them – and yet the volume of the flock above never lessened. They seemed to renew themselves automatically, like a aberrant bacteria, and I, like Sarah, shivered. Ranulph, spying me, gave a cheery wave and grinned a cheery grin on that beef-red face of his. I reluctantly went out to help him bag his kills. Dead birds feel like drowned kittens in your hands.

*

Until I surfaced from my sleep and could see properly, I thought Sarah was drowning me, that her mewling in my ears was the mournful sound of an underwater death. Her hands, red and white and useless, tried to shake me this way and that. I sat up, knuckling my hair

Her eyes were pools of black in blackness.

I made a sound at her such as is made in the dead of night upon awakening. Her voice made a variety of bubbles that drifted whitely about the room, illuminating the scene. Must come, and quickly.

Grasping my wrist, she pulled me from the eiderdown and to the door, her feet still bare, all the halls and corridors of this ancient old house still and silent.

Save one.

She led me through the tangle of passageways to the dining room. I traced our path with the flat of my hand on the wall, enjoying, in an infinitesimal way, the sound of my skin and bones on the various surfaces, wood, tile, brass, leather, cloth.

Ranulph sat at the head of the dining table, illuminated from behind by an ornate standing lamp. He fixed me with a bloodshot gaze, but never once stopped what he was doing.

He was eating a bird.

There was a small pagoda of them on the floor, a discolouration of red.

He opened its small body with his hands, ripping into the flesh with his pointed teeth – the same as my own, as Sarah’s – undeterred by feathers. His face was slick with various fluids, and feathers adhered to it in all places.

He was a mass of feathers, soft and black as a miscarriage.

The room was loud with ripping.

Sarah extended a shaking finger at him, as though to emphasise her point.

Interludes similar to this one are not uncommon in my private life.

I sighed, moving to step forward, not perturbed by the behaviour of my brother in the slightest. This, of course, was when the bay window was shattered into a thousand pieces from the outside, and a thousand night-black birds tumbled in. I say tumbled; they poured, or streamed, like ink, or the waters of the Styx.

The room was filled with the grotesque.

Appalled, I flung myself back, smashing a teaset, bombarded by hundreds of tiny careening bodies that looked soft but were endowed with a sharpness that tore my nightshirt, my chest and arms and face.

The night was red and black.

The last images I saw seared themselves onto my memory for all time. Before they lacerated and extracted my eye, I saw my sister’s face, white with fear and revulsion, the birds all around her and within her nightclothes, her hair, cramming into her mouth. I saw them plunge into the stomach of my brother.

Something about the days getting shorter seeps itself into my marrow at the turn of the year, and recalls to me my last night of vision.

* * * * *

Jessica Maybury is a Dublin-based fiction writer, poet, and amateur pianist. She reviews comics at http://GirlsLikeComics.Wordpress.com and co-edits @azinecalledESC. This is her first contribution to Snake-Oil Cure.

Dr. Hurley’s Digest, Vol. III, Issue 14

This week featured some great fiction from Craig Davis and some lovable monstrosities from Gaetan Vanparijs.

 

Monday – Art

Friday – Fiction

 

Snake-Oilers old and new will entertain us more next week!

Sea and Scorpion

Hector Stone wore slick wingtips upon his feet, climbing the worn wooden steps of his old home. He would never have returned of his own will. Scanning the weathered porch, he thought the paint was peeling even more than when he’d left the place for college. His mother had pressured him to scrape it down and put on a new coat back then, but he’d been too busy planning his grand future. She still hasn’t gotten it done, he shook his head knowingly – no surprise there.

She’d had plenty of time to see to the job, too. Since his departure Hector had finished off his under-graduate work, clerked a few years in a law office and put a great dent in law school. He hadn’t quite finished, but already he’d learned enough legal trickery to know he needed to get his mother’s affairs in order. Her health had slipped badly in recent months, and now as the dutiful son, he would move back into the house to take care of things. He didn’t particularly want to, nor did he feel obliged by any warmth; in fact, it was a bit of an imposition. But he thought it the sensible thing to do.

His exit from the house those years ago had felt like an escape from prison. For as long as he could remember, his intellect and prospects had strained at the tiny house nestled in Salem’s oldest neighborhood. Drawing the walls even tighter was his mother: In her eyes he could do no wrong, as long as he did what she expected. Anything else would bring only creeping disaster. After she’d lost her husband, she apparently had determined to keep Hector locked in time at age twelve. His one attempt at courting a bride gave rise to an embarrassing monologue about his inexperience, as the girl uncomfortably shifted her weight from one foot to the other. Saving to buy his own car drove her to clip ads for scooters and other vehicles she considered cute. His interest in law inspired a discussion in her ladies’ club that he should do something about folks who let their yards go to the dandelions, as he was compelled to stand and listen. While he could already feel the back of his neck tingle as he crossed the porch, still he hoped his long absence had divorced him from her maternal anachronism.

He tapped lightly on the screen door in mock politeness before sticking his head inside. “Mother, I’ve arrived!”

“Well, come in! Come on in, Hector!” She sounded like he’d only left that morning, like he had never lived anywhere else in his life.

The voice came from a corner, and Hector found the front room even darker than he remembered. A musty odor filled his head, and he was struck by the amount of fabric decorating the room. Finally he spotted his mother, in a dingy Queen Anne chair, her walker cast off to the side. She could not get around easily anymore, added to her general loss of memory, and the walker served only for trips to the kitchen or bathroom. In her letter inviting Hector to return, in between emphasizing how much he would enjoy again seeing the cradle of his enchanted past, she pointedly mentioned she would have to ask the neighbor child to mail it.

The towering chair made her look yet more frail than she really was, but in spite of that, to Hector she loomed like the smothering overlord of his childhood. In her shrunken state, she had become even less able to fathom his sagacity. But she still aimed to preside from her throne, he thought, to twist everything he said into a royal decree of her own making. He resolved not to give her the ammunition or satisfaction, he thought to himself; whatever she said, he would destroy her with sly nuance.

“How was your trip?” she asked.

“Everything you might dream a cross-country jaunt with a busload of circus freaks could be,” he replied.

“I’m so glad. You loved the circus so – you were so cute in your little clown suit.”

Hector felt his button being pushed, and wondered how he’d fallen so easily into a pit. He could see the time drawing short not only to get his mother’s affairs in order, but also to set her straight. His huge suitcase, packed with more books than clothes for his stay, fell heavily to the floor, and he sat upon it like a barrister’s bench, leaning upon his elbows and petitioning with gestures.

“I didn’t come all this way to discuss Halloween costumes, Mother. How are you feeling?”

“I feel just fine, now. Just wonderful!”

“Then why am I here? You haven’t even gotten out of your chair – how can you say you feel wonderful?”

“It’s wonderful to see you. And besides, where there’s life, there’s hope,” she smiled as though the notion had just come to her. “That’s wonderful.”

“Yeah, well, that’s a fine sentiment, but it won’t get you far at your age,” he sneered. “We have to face facts and start getting your estate planned.”

“Oh, there’s plenty of time for that,” she assured him. “I’ve got lots of time.”

He let out his exasperation in a great sigh. “We need to face facts,” he repeated. “Denial isn’t just a river in Egypt, you know.”

“I don’t know what you mean, but I’m sure it’s very clever.”

Hector had to pace; he felt like a prosecutor presenting final arguments to the jury. “I mean, there’s no use clinging to false hope. It’s best to realize you’re dying and just live with it. Clinging to a dreary existence isn’t living at all, anyway. Best to just admit your problems and move on.”

“Well, I know I have some problems. I haven’t slept through the night in years. But I won’t wallow in it – at least I’m not suffering like my little neighbor.”

Her neighbor was the four-year-old who lived next door, Abbie Fish. Her real name was Absalom – the youngest of seven daughters, her parents sincerely believed she’d be born a boy among the various Sarahs, Rebeccas and Rachels and so on. But God brought her out a girl just to show He might not do what is expected. Her folks decided to stick to the solid biblical name they’d chosen anyway, and for her sake called her Abbie.

Abbie had suffered most of her life with mysterious symptoms and behaviors. She’d been a bright baby, nothing out of the ordinary, but shortly after reaching toddler age a number of odd manners had arisen in her. She did not prosper physically, a lack of appetite leading to lack of growth. The pediatrician there in town blamed it on her chronic constipation, and prescribed an endless series of suppositories. But Abbie never did eat with relish, and learned which hours of the day to hide from her treatments. She was sometimes lethargic, sometimes too energetic, and other times irritable. Her parents learned to take her day-by-day, never knowing which Abbie would get out of bed that morning. But one thing they could count on: She loved her visits with Dr. Croswell.

Dr. Croswell was new to town, just in the last twelve months or so, but he was old to the world. Having spent a career practicing in the big city, he’d semi-retired to Salem to putter away his final years. He’d seen it all, from the old diseases like measles, to the new ones like attention deficit disorder. Nothing fazed him, and he poured out learned attention upon each new patient, regardless of prognosis.

Though a general practitioner, he particularly liked seeing the children. He had a natural gift to draw out their love, either with silly antics or the gentle comfort of his touch. Abbie was no exception, and strangely, though he often pierced her arm with a needle, she excitedly anticipated her monthly appointments and luxuriated in his consolations afterwards. With a head round and fleshy, he might blow out his cheeks like a blowfish, or perhaps make a pucker out of his entire face. His round glasses emphasized his eyes, blue and bright, and his cavalier attitude toward haircuts created a blurred white nimbus around his countenance.

“Now you be sure to come see me again next month!” he’d grin at her.

“Yes! Yes!” Her words were few and simple.

“You sure you can keep on charging us nothing, Doc?” Mr. Fish said. “You sure you want to keep seeing Abbie?”

“You just keep bringing her around as long as it makes her happy.” He played peep-eye with her through the mirror strapped to his head. “You going to visit me again? I expect to keep seeing you for a long time.”

“Yes! Yes!” she jumped in place.

“She reminds me of Shirley Temple!” Hector’s mother said. “You used to love her movies on television – you’d try to dance along with her! You were just so darling. But she’s terribly sick, far sicker than me. It’s just wonderful how Dr. Croswell treats her. He encourages her, and makes her so happy.”

“Well, maybe there’s hope for her. She’s young enough to get her strength back, not like you,” Hector hid his pleasure at finding another educated man had come to town. Maybe he could find some time for intelligent conversation as he suffered through the insipid business of his mother. So his heart sank at her next utterance.

“Oh, no, no hope at all. Dr. Croswell says there’s no hope.”

“What? Well, why the hell doesn’t he just tell her that! It’s cruel to lead her on.”

“Hector! I wish you would watch your language! This is still my house, and I’ll not have you dirtying the air with curses! Why, I remember when your uncle came to visit, though you were only six, you scolded him and scolded him, and all he said was ‘dang.’ So now don’t you bring any filthy language in here.”

“Mother, I’m a grown man. I’ll talk any way I want.”

“I won’t spend my last days listening to that trash.”

At least she’s grasping the futility of her condition, Hector thought. He’d just have to look for an opportunity to straighten out Dr. Croswell himself. “I’m going upstairs,” he cut the subject short.

“Remember that short part of the ceiling over the staircase. Don’t bump your head.”

With a painful grunt, he headed to the winding stairs and made his way up the narrow passage. The suitcase barely squeezed through. His eyes followed the wallpaper’s pattern the same way they always did, and at the top he automatically made the hairpin turn into his room. Not a thing had changed since the last night he’d spent there years ago, except somewhere along the line she’d made the bed. As he looked over the walls, smaller still than he remembered, the things he had left hanging there through high school surprised him – pennants, pin-ups, even childish drawings.

He drew nearer to scrutinize one in particular: A school art project of watercolors on cheap paper, which he’d thought enough of at one time to frame. It portrayed two figures, one large and one small, bent toward each other, working at abutting desks. Hector’s father had been Salem’s lone legal practitioner, going back to youthful days when he’d plunked down a black bag at the bus station and decided this one-horse town suffered a void. Since his earliest days, Hector had heard his father’s promises that he’d join in one day, Stone & Son Attorneys at Law, continuing the tradition into eternity. The old man would stand in the living room, tall and strong, wrap his arm around Mother and promise. Hector believed it with his whole heart, right up to the day his father ran off with the secretary. Looking back now, the deed made sense to Hector, but at the time it was a shock. He wouldn’t have minded so much if he’d expected it.

He took the picture from the wall and set it upon the floor, propped against the wall, back facing outward.

The bed creaked as he sat upon its edge and mulled his fate. He couldn’t figure why he was appointed to such a distasteful bit of business, but he knew his best bet was to get through it as fast as possible. First he would need to get some idea of his mother’s assets, then follow where they took him. He doubted her holdings could amount to much, probably only a bank account or two, plus the house. As he sat projecting the future, he suddenly became aware of his mother’s voice, calling out in an urgent tone.

Hector swung through his door and around the corner; his head banged into the low part of the ceiling. He cocked his voice to curse, then stifled it to a growl under his breath. Rubbing his hand through the well-cropped shock of jet black hair, he stumbled down the steps and strode expectantly before her chair. “What’s the matter?”

“Oh! Hector! When did you get here?”

“I’ve been here for some time now. Did you call me?”

“No, but since you’re here, I wish you would dig up my beds for me. The bulbs will be coming up soon.”

“What? Mother, I moved back here to do important work for you! I don’t have time to be your gardener.”

“The bulbs are important. Don’t you want the hyacinths to be nice? You used to pick them for me every spring – it was so sweet. You used to say they were bottle brushes. ‘Bottle brushes for you, Mama.’ ”

This prattle thoroughly turned Hector’s stomach. “That’s all very good, Mother, but I came back to work on your financial affairs. That’s important work, and it will demand all my time.”

“Well, just go out and look at the flower bed. You always knew how to take care of it so well.”

“I never knew anything of the sort. I can’t stand gardening and never learned anything about it on purpose.”

“Well, I wish you’d go look.”

Hector went out on the porch anyway, just to get away from the conversation. He pointedly ignored the flowers, and instead surveyed the neighborhood as he leaned against the rail. The street hadn’t changed after all these years. The superficial pleasantry of the clapboard houses reflected perfectly the banality of the people within, and he shuddered to think he might need their help with his mother. The dogwood blooms had peeked open, and Hector breathed in the crispness; the early warmth gladdened him, for summer was on its way. The thought of longer daylight hours turned grimly toward the neighbors, and he imagined them puttering aimlessly in their lawns and gardens, not once thinking of what service they might be to him.

Without warning he realized he was watching a little girl in front of the next house down. Her quiet behavior had lulled him – it didn’t seem like she was doing anything. He didn’t have any experience to base this judgment upon, but he didn’t think she looked as old as four. Still, he thought, this must be Abbie. Her hair was done up in a ragged ponytail, and she wore the smallest pair of cat-eye glasses Hector had ever seen. On closer inspection, he could see she had a bottle of soap bubbles: Time and again, she inserted the wand, then waved it much too vigorously to make a bubble.

She looked small, but not particularly sick. Perhaps she has some rare cancer, a disease too mysterious for the bumpkins here to recognize, he thought. He imagined an exotic tumor deep within her, undetectable by x-ray but still filling her body with poisonous tendrils. She really is an object of pity, not only so ill but completely ignorant of her condition. If she knew, at least she could prepare herself; perhaps she could even demand better medical care, he thought. She could force her parents to take her away, take her to doctors who actually knew something about treating the sick. Maybe I can help this child, Hector thought, knowing the truth would help her. Nobody else in town would be honest with her, maybe I can do her a favor. He’d try being friendly with her, then bring up the subject of her illness.

“You’re waving your wand too hard,” he called out helpfully. “Wave your wand gently to make a bubble.”

She looked in the direction of the voice, her owlish eyes magnified in her glasses. She held up the bottle and turned it upside down. “No soap,” she said.

Hector drooped his head and shook it wearily. She’s no different from everyone else here, he thought – at least she has her age as an excuse. “Oh,” was all he could reply. “Are you Abbie?”

“Yes.”

“You’re a cute little girl,” he crooned. “I’ll bet you’re smart, too.”

Abbie didn’t answer, but she shook the bottle to make sure there was no soap.

“Do you go to school?”

“No.”

“How old are you?”

She sorted out four fingers and held them up.

“Will you come closer, so I don’t have to yell at you?”

“No.”

“Why not? I can’t talk to you if I have to yell.”

“No! Mama says, can’t go over there no more!”

“Please? I won’t hurt you. I’m Mrs. Stone’s son.”

“No! No!” Abbie grew irritable.

“But why not?”

“Dr. Cros’l says no! No! No! No! No!” Her voice grew into a piercing scream, like a whistle with a pea in it.

Hector stood stunned.

“Leave me alone! Not going to you!” Abbie clinched her fists as she berated him.

The door to the house opened, and Mrs. Fish leaned out. “Abbie! Keep your voice down!” She cast a stern look at Hector and added, “You’d better come on in.” Abbie marched up her porch steps, leaving Hector alone and confounded, as though he’d forgotten to study for a test.

The encounter only made him more determined to help the girl. Obviously, she’d been thoroughly conditioned, and he’d have to do some work to break through to her. Perhaps he should talk to this Dr. Croswell first, and see if he knew anything. He decided to patiently watch for the right opportunity with the girl, and, in the meantime, he turned his concentration to his mother’s papers. In the spare bedroom he found towering stacks, a collection of old forms and documents, mixed with unopened mail. Hector’s thoughts roiled as he realized the mountain of difficulties he had to climb. The days dragged into weeks as he sorted through each sheet of paper, and he could feel his interest and energy for the project draining out of him.

Despondent, one stormy day he simply planted himself on the porch to watch the downpour. Sitting in front of a screened window, he carried on an exchange with his mother, next to the window in her chair.

“That gutter has a leak,” said the voice through the window. A stream of rainwater was pouring over the edge of the porch roof.

“That’s the kink in the gutter,” said Hector. “The downspout’s clogged, so the water rushes over that bent part.”

“I wish you could look at that.”

“I am looking at it.”

“You haven’t done any work here since you were in high school.”

“Mother, I’ve been working on your estate ever since I got back. That’s all I’ve been doing, and it’s killing me. How could you let so much paperwork accumulate? I don’t think I should have to fix the house, too.”

“You haven’t done a thing I asked you to, ever since you were in high school.”

“It’s been some time since I was in high school.”

“I remember. I remember the little shoeshine kit you made in woodshop. You’re so cute when you use it out there on the porch. Is that what you’re doing?”

“Mother, that box fell apart a year after I made it, and I haven’t been in high school for a long time now. You need to accept that I’m an adult. Life goes on.”

“I have some shoes that need shining. I wish you would take care of them.”

The rain came down as the day grew old. In the horizon the canopy of dark clouds broke, and the setting sun burned the sky red. Next door, Abbie Fish came out to play in the warm showers. She stood with her head pitched backwards, feeling the drops patter upon her face. Hector hadn’t seen her since their first meeting, such had been his devotion to organizing papers, and he tersely observed her play. She was wearing a baggy pink one-piece swimsuit, with cartoon kittens all over it. Apparently her parents didn’t care much about her, letting her get drenched in a storm, he thought. He moved his chair to the edge of the porch.

“Aren’t you afraid getting wet will make you more sick?” He dispensed with niceties and addressed her illness directly.

“You make me sick,” she said back casually.

Hector already didn’t like the way the conversation was going. He tried a different tact.

“Why don’t you like me?”

“Ma says stay ’way. Dr. Cros’l says stay ’way.”

“You like Dr. Croswell, don’t you?”

“Yup.”

“But he’s never helped you. He can’t make you better.”

“He loves me.”

“But he can’t make you better. Doesn’t that upset you?”

“No.”

“It doesn’t make you mad?”

“You make me mad. Dr. Cros’l says stay ’way.”

Hector grew impatient. “Well, you don’t have to listen to him. He’s not telling you the truth – he doesn’t want you to know. But you’re not going to get well.”

“You leave Dr. Cros’l ’lone! He’s nice to me!”

“Well, he hasn’t done you a bit of good. It’s better for you to know.”

“Dr. Cros’l says stay ’way!” Abbie’s screaming became intense again. “Stay ’way!” She ran back into her house, and Hector stood from his chair. As she disappeared he called out, “You won’t get any better!”

“What did you say to that child?” his mother asked when he entered the house.

“You’re not getting better, either,” he said flatly.

The piles of papers turned into endless calls to local bankers and insurance agents. The small-town idiots didn’t seem to have any answers for him, nor any idea how to find any. Hector felt trapped, in a staring match with the same deeds and contracts day after day, trying to discern some hint of how to cut through the legal tangles. Finding delinquency letters from Internal Revenue did not help his mood, and tax forms haunted his dreams, blowing in the tumbling wind just out of his reach. His resentment toward the weight of responsibility grew, and he longed to pursue only his own interests again. Filial service, once a mere annoyance, now seemed futile and a complete mockery.

He could feel his future fleeting away – he, himself, Hector Stone, the only man of Salem who might make something of himself, was slipping into the clutches of this shabby little world, like an insect looking for morsels in the loose dirt of a doodlebug’s lair. His grand dreams of high-rise offices and power lunches sank into illusion, the exaltation over his fellows becoming a ruinous downfall. Gazing in the mirror, he thought creases had begun to draw down his chiseled face, and gray had sprouted within his hair. I have to get out of here, he thought, I have to break out. But something prevented him from escape – something greater than his mother’s petty files and papers. He first must confront the hollow peace that folded over this town, crush its vacuous resistance to plain-spoken reality. “I’ll not leave until I’ve made a public show of this Dr. Croswell.” And still the work ground on and on.

As spring fully put on summer, often Hector would have to recess to the porch, pausing to relax his mind in its cool shade. He never saw Abbie in her yard during these times, a fact he attributed to the heat, if he happened to think of it at all. He’d done all he could for her anyway. But one day he spied a small collection of cars in front of her house. Hector studied the goings-on from a distance, neither welcome nor willing to stand aside. People filtered in and out of the house, until at length an elderly man in a frumpy suit sauntered out and into the yard. He sucked idly on a pipe, and when the two men’s eyes met, he meandered closer to Hector’s mother’s house.

“Are you Mr. Stone?”

“And you are the great Dr. Croswell!” he replied, smiling thinly.

“Abbie mentioned you to me.”

“I’ll bet. How is she? Still buying into false hope?”

“No – she’s died.” He peered at the pipe as though it was plugged.

“Oh.” Hector was not really surprised, but to hear it said so frankly, without sentimentality, but with benign peace, that caught him off guard. “I don’t suppose you ever did know what she had.”

“Oh, I knew from the first day. Lead poisoning – by the time I saw her, she never had a chance. All the classic symptoms: Anemia, lethargy, what we call ‘failure to flourish,’ some outbursts of bad behavior – you might have noticed that.”

Hector silently nodded.

“Yes, you don’t see it much anymore, but that was it, no doubt about it. Kidney failure finally was too much for her. Probably got into peeling paint – funny thing about little children, how they will eat paint chips, totally innocent to the danger, of course. Old paint was full of lead.” Dr. Croswell looked up at Hector as he relit his pipe. “If only she could’ve stayed away from that peeling paint.”

“So I was right, she didn’t have any hope.”

“No, not for her body getting well. But we kept her spirits up. Abbie enjoyed her life, right up to the last day, dwelling on the love she found. She was a bright and wonderful child, in spite of her suffering. She never surrendered to it. You couldn’t kill her spirit, like her body. You couldn’t’ve done it, no matter what you said.”

Dr. Croswell walked away with no parting word, and considered Abbie’s house carefully as he passed by, then disappeared down the sidewalk. Hector stared blankly at his departure.

He retreated into the darkness of his house. Something about the conversation had left him troubled – why could he reply nothing? Why could he throw out no sharp comeback, no reproof that Croswell could never hope to answer? Something about the doctor had struck him mute. He remembered Abbie’s childish rebukes, and how no reply from him had any effect on her simple adherence to Croswell’s words. A bitter frustration grew in him, a humiliation he’d never experienced, even at the hands of brutal law professors. This vile, simple people had left him with nothing. All that he had left to take hold of was the damnation of his mother’s vain paperwork. If a child could smile her way to death, what good is knowledge? What good is the law – its accusations can’t inspire fear if hope undermines penalty. He saw himself straining at a gnat, wasting his life sorting out the details of his own paltry inheritance. The musky drapes of the front room hung like condemnation all around him. An angry despair enveloped him, as his lone sanctuary of legalistic argument rose within. The law is the law, what’s right is right – throw hope out of the mix. He offers knowledge – no more is needed. He – they – everyone must face their dire lives, and expect nothing more. They must pay the price he has decided. The thought that a child might cling to grace made his throat clinch.

“What’s happened?” his mother asked.

“Why can’t you get done with it and die?” he replied.

* * * * *

Craig Davis was born and bred in Memphis, the land of Elvis and pork barbecue, though neither ever did him any good. After earning journalism degrees at the University of Missouri, he worked in newsrooms for 20 years, then turned his attention to writing fiction in 2004. Davis has written five books available for Kindle, including “A Time for Poncey – And other Stories out of Skullbone.” He has two grown daughters and a dog who refuses to grow up. You can find him online here.

His contributions to Snake-Oil Cure can be found here.

Dr. Hurley’s Digest, Vol. III, Issue 13

Check out what you missed this week below.

 

Monday – Photography

Wednesday – Poetry

 

More to come over the coming weeks!