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 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.

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!

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 10

The return of a favourite author, Jude Joseph Lovell, gave us an insight into his novel Blue Six, and we got more goodies from John Grey and Nicolas Bruno. Check it out:

 

Monday – Photography

Wednesday – Poetry

Friday – Fiction

Stay tuned for some newbies next week!

Formative Experience

Excerpt from a Novel called Blue Six by
Jude Joseph Lovell

*

DAY 1: 

It is two hours before the Teleportation of our four-member film crew.  I’m up before Julie and Charlotte, drinking coffee to help quell my jitters.  I already said my goodbyes, even though to them I’ll only be gone a few hours.  I don’t like these nerves I get.  Ten years with Formative Experience Films, working in conjunction with the National Arts Proliferation Experiment (NAPE) out of Washington, D.C., but I can’t get used to Teleportation Day, despite having worked on thirteen previous productions.  Of course, what I feel may be impacted by the fact that it’s my first time directing.  But I’ll set down here what I have been telling myself for the last six weeks, since the film was green-lighted: I got this.  God knows I’ve stumbled my way through enough rough patches in the pre-historic conditions of the 1980s, 1990s, or even the early 2000s working on other FE films to prepare me for whatever I may encounter.  Experiences that will no doubt be captured by a future FE crew, possibly with a hungry young director, when they go back and explore my own formative years.  Perhaps that sounds arrogant.  But if I didn’t believe in my own potential, I would have pursued a different line of work.  I know I can make films that have an impact.  Hopefully this new feature on Joel Duvell is an initial stride in that direction.


DAY 2: 

At the undisclosed safe house now, recovering from Teleportation.  A boring day, plus your body just aches.  Sometimes I think more than 24 hours is required, for the ringing in your ears alone, but the six week production schedule is stringent.  Welcome to January 1993.  Georgia, it turns out, was often very warm even back then – now, I should say – all year ‘round.  I was offered the Duvell gig mainly because I fought for it.  I’ve always worked on the films about writers, since I’m one of the few of my generation who still chooses to read, not datafeed.  Blame it on my father, who maintained a stranglehold on his traditional books – that’s books, no prefatory e-, no i-, no u-.  He had about 3,000 in a bunker underneath our backyard.  I had full access to them growing up.  As we know now, Duvell still drafts in longhand, which is rare nowadays.  I presume he always has.  That’s one of the numerous questions about the writer that we hope to answer.  Tomorrow, at 5:00 a.m., we proceed to the post for our first day of shooting.  Or rather, 0500, as they say where we are headed.
DAY 4:

Or not.  We’ve been delayed.  The lieutenant has to complete inprocessing, whatever that means, before reporting for duty. First wrinkle in my schedule.  Our location is officially Columbus, Georgia, but the majority of our filming will take place specifically at Fort Benning, the United States military installation that is still known today as the Home of the Infantry.  The subject is Joel Duvell, currently age 22, an American novelist and short story writer, possibly best known for his acclaimed novel Fire Watch (2017) about the Trappist monk Thomas Merton.  But I came to know him through his hilarious and poignant debut Mean Mean Stride (2014), which is the only novel I know of that prominently features the old progressive rock outfit Rush – still well-loved by thousands, even today.  My old man was a Rush fan, and he had a first edition of Duvell’s book inside that bunker.  Duvell is what you might call a late bloomer.  He worked at a number of spirit-crushing office jobs throughout his younger years, also raised four children with his wife.  His literary career finally took off in his mid-forties.  Now he’s sixty-three.  Another novelist, one of the true giants of the last century and into the early part of this one, José Saramago of Portugal, didn’t start churning out novels until he was in his late forties.  And he won the Nobel Prize for Literature, in 1998.  Nobody mentions Duvell in connection with that prize, which they consistently decline to give to Americans anyway, but he has achieved critical and even modest commercial success in the last two decades.  A lot of people do not know, however, that he was writing for over twenty years before he was published.  Even less people know, and most find it hard to believe, that he served as an Infantry officer in the U.S. Army as a young man.  My Executive Producers argued for a nostalgic doc focusing on Duvell’s time in corporate America prior to the second Depression, but I had heard all about the rumors regarding Duvell’s unpublished manuscripts and short stories from his time as a soldier. I had read eagerly when True Believer published his early story called American Soldiers, written back in 1997.  That’s where we need to go, to the period when he served, I said.   Shooting in a military environment presents considerable challenges, they came back. Especially before the scaling back of the Defense department.  We can’t risk one of our directors on that job.  That’s when I volunteered, I’ll direct.  Tomorrow, Duvell reports.


DAY 5: 

First day on location at Fort Benning, or Fort Beginning, as the troops here call it.  We’ve already learned the meaning of the soldierly expression, Hurry up and wait.  We had to show up at 0600 at Infantry Hall on post for a briefing by officials – a civilian woman and a Major Weid, a protocol officer.  Their job was basically to inform us of where we could and could not go on the installation.  We used the cover story we settled on in pre-production: we are with the old cable television channel National Geographic, shooting footage of young officers for a program on the cultivation of American military leaders.  They bought it.  Then we were sent to a mess hall, where we sat around for two hours discussing my general approach to the shoot, drinking coffee so weak it tasted like scalding tap water.  Duvell was not scheduled to report officially before 0830, and we were unable to move by vehicle between 6 and 0730 because of morning physical training, or PT.  At precisely half-past seven, a huge cannon blew off somewhere, traffic picked up immediately, and a pimply-faced private arrived.  He took us out to an incredibly ancient green truck called a deuce-and-a-half.  My grip (Brandon), boom operator (Kelvin), DP (Floyd), and I piled into the back with these huge rolled-up canvas tent-looking things.  The private drove us to a place called Kelley Hill clear across post, and pulled up to a depressing sand-colored building with a flagpole and a sign with a painted crest on it.  Headquarters, 1st Battalion, 17th Infantry Regiment (Mechanized), it read, and across the bottom the words: SPEED TO THE FRONT.

Duvell arrived at 0820 in a little gray Honda.  They had us waiting by the front desk.  You couldn’t call it a lobby per se.  We were standing under a shabby wood and glass display case on the wall.  It held a kind of collage, consisting of two crossed AK-47 rifles; a bunch of dirty papers in Arabic, a few hand-written; and a uniform that was once apparently worn by some unfortunate in Saddam Hussein’s Republican Guard.  This is 1993, so we’re talking about the first Persian Gulf War, now a footnote at best, called Operation Desert Storm.  They sure thought it was a big deal in 1/17 Infantry.  We saw Duvell park and approach the battalion headquarters on foot, in freshly pressed camouflage fatigues and a Second Lieutenant’s gold butter bar gleaming on his hat.  It would have been tough to recognize the writer just by pictures from today.  In his sixties, Duvell is much paunchier, entirely bald, with thick glasses and a white beard.  The young man walking smartly up the flagstones this morning was slim, with wire-rimmed glasses; a clean shaven, youthful face; and startled blue eyes that telegraphed his appreciable apprehension.  Yet there was no mistaking him.  I’ve never even been on a military installation before, but if this wasn’t a young officer reporting in for the first time then I’ll never know what one looks like.  I think the plan was for someone to take Duvell off to the side and let him know he’d been randomly selected for the documentary, but the Battalion Adjutant, a Captain Malone, was no where to be found, and the four of us were left standing there with our gear when the future novelist walked in.  Screw it, I said to nobody, and introduced myself and my crew.  I explained why we were there, and resisted the urge to tell him I’d read all of his books.  I have – only he hasn’t written them yet.  It’ll be many years.  But it tunrs out he was writing quite a bit even by 1993.  Duvell looked like someone had just slapped his face moments before, so startled did he seem by our presence.  The poor guy had a lot on his mind already, and a film crew just compounded it.  You’ll get used to us, I promised.  You won’t even know we’re here.  We stay out of the way.  I can’t say this first meeting gave me a strong impression.  It certainly was not the last time I would see Duvell look as though he had no idea what just happened.

Our first shot: Lieutenant Duvell, sitting in the Battalion Adjutant’s office, waiting for Captain Malone to show up.  He was staring at a white board on the wall that depicts the leadership structure of the battalion staff and each of its five Infantry companies: Alpha, Bravo, Charlie, Delta, and Headquarters.  Each company has a commander and a first sergeant, and under those names, three mechanized infantry platoons each, all led by First or Second Lieutenants.  There were three platoons on the chart for which no Platoon Leader’s name was attached.  Duvell will be assigned to one of these platoons, we are assuming.  He seemed focused on a little block on the corner of the board that read EXPECTED GAINS, followed by these names: CPT WHISNER, 2LT LaFIOSCA, 2LT DUVELL.  Floyd zoomed in on the board first, then the LT’s eyes.  Duvell clutched a green military issue notebook, a folded white document, and a pen.  I don’t think the man had said a word since he told us who he was, and the few other men we’d seen were ignoring the hell out of him.  What was going through his mind?  I’ll have to ask him when we have our first one-on-one.  Suddenly a tall, lanky officer blew into the room with a clipboard and a bunch of thick, three-ring binders.  It’s amazing how much paper was consumed.  He deposited the books on his desk rather unceremoniously among mountains of other files.  You Lieutenant Duvell? he shouted.  Duvell, already standing, barked, Yessir, reporting for duty as ordered.  He handed the folded paper to the captain, who opened it and scrutinized the order.  Duvell rendered a crisp salute, which the taller man reflexively returned.  At ease, lieutenant.  What is it … Joel?  Yessir.  Malone thrust his thumb at us.  I already know about these gentlemen.  We approve.  Show them respect. But at the same time, you’ll do your job as if they aren’t there.  Is that clear?  Yessir, it is, said Duvell, who was not acting intimidated.   It seems he can play the game when he needs to.  We’ll see how long he can keep that up.  Malone riffled through a bunch of papers.  It was almost as if he’d forgotten Duvell was there.  I signalled Floyd to keep rolling.  I will have to spend a good deal of time in the editing room, I can see that already.  Hurry up and wait.  At least Floyd’s camera is digital, although we rigged it up in a much bulkier shell container from an old PanaVision, because digital photography hadn’t been invented. That was my idea. A director has to innovate. Finally, the captain said, There you are, you fucker.  He plucked a single page from the mountain and read it.  You will be taking over 3rd Platoon, Delta Company.  Your commanding officer is Captain Greg Bayne – outstanding trooper – and your platoon sergeant is ….  Son of a bitch! he yelled.  Lots of luck, Joel.  The man leaned back in his chair, his eyes aflame with mirth.  Your platoon sergeant is Mike Braintree.  Sergeant First Class Mike Braintree, I should say.  Whoo boy.  Duvell scratched furiously in his notebook.  Then he looked up again, his face blank.  Well, Braintree will fix you up right.  Don’t you worry about that.  Malone laughed again.  Then he gestured over Duvell’s shoulder, towards another door I hadn’t even noticed.  The commander’s CP is through that door.  Which is where you would take your ass right now and report to him if he were here.  But, seeing as how it’s early January, the colonel is on leave – as is most of the battalion.  So, since it’s also Friday, you are dismissed until Monday.  Report back here at 0900 sharp on that day to meet with Colonel Abrams.  Is that understood?  Captain Malone rose.  So did Duvell.  Absolutely, sir, he said.  He lifted his hand again and saluted.  Speed to the Front, sir.  The captain returned it and said, All the way.  And that’s all we got on Day One.
DAY 7:

We were able to shoot a few one-on-ones today, Sunday, to help flesh out the time while waiting for tomorrow.  These conversations are  essential for the film.  Captain Malone lives on post with his wife and two small kids. We didn’t intend to talk to him much, but wanted to get his first impressions of our subject.  He told us Duvell looked scared.  And he’s got good reason, Malone said on camera.  Can you explain what you mean by that, Captain? I asked.  Well, he’s a brand-new officer, entirely untested.  He began ticking off on his fingers.  Zero military background, either prior service or in his family. I have the file. No known existing or former soldier to take counsel from.  He is not Ranger qualified, either.  We have heard that this is an essential ticket-punch for young Infantry officers – to complete this difficult combat/survival/leadership course, said to be extremely demanding.  The school is based right on Fort Benning, but Duvell either side-stepped it or got thrown out.  This, Malone explained, immediately puts him a few notches under most of the other officers. The soldiers will notice for sure.  Whether they care is debatable.   But they will see that most of the officers have the Ranger tab on the left shoulder, and that Duvell does not.  Duvell’s CO, Bayne, will be displeased.  No question about that, Malone said.  Then there’s the battalion training calendar.  Duvell will have little time to adjust.  And if that’s not enough, there’s Sergeant First Class Braintree.  He would be a serious handful for any young officer.  How do you mean? I asked.  You’ll have to see for yourselves, he laughed.  There’s no preparing for Braintree.  Brilliant soldier.  Don’t get me wrong.  But he will chew Duvell up and spit him out.  The captain nodded, as if to confirm his own conclusion.  Yep, if I were Duvell, I’d be scared too.

* * * * *

Jude J. Lovell received an MFA in Creative Writing from The New School in 2001 and his writing has appeared in Touchstone, Rock & Sling, America, St. Austin Review, Paste, The Other Journal andAmerican Chronicle.  He is also currently writing a book about Herman Melville.

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

Dr. Hurley’s Digest, Vol. III, Issue 8

This week, new Snake-Oilers joined an old hand to give us poetry and fiction. Check out what you missed.

Monday – Fiction

Wednesday – Poetry

Friday – Poetry

More to come tomorrow!

Dr. Hurley’s Digest, Vol. III, Issue 5

This week, some poetry and fiction graced our shores. Check out what you missed below, and stay tuned for more next week!

 

Wednesday – Poetry

Friday – Fiction

 

More to come next week from favourite Brenda Mann Hammack!