While he toiled away in the vineyard of his considerable intellectual acumen, I retreated to my little loft to change for a quick trip to town. My purpose was simple: to pick up some raspberry scones from the baker’s, for I knew he would ask for one when he awoke on the morrow and would not be able, for the life of him, to understand why the sconeless condition persisted despite my having knowledge of the deficiency.
I did not notice it at first in my haste (the baker’s would be closing in less than an hour). I had changed and was reaching for my little hat upon its peg, when I happened to glance down and see it hanging on the bedpost: It was a brand-new hat, noticeably larger than the tattered, mud-stained cousin now in my quivering hand. What was this? I picked it up, turned it over, and saw embroidered on the inner lining, in golden thread, my initials: W.J.H.
For a moment I remained there, frozen to the spot, my heart for some reason pounding as if I’d raced up a steep hill, holding in one hand my little hat, which still smelled faintly of wood smoke from a fire long since quenched, and in the other the new one that seemed to have appeared out of nowhere, but of course did come from somewhere-from someone.
Bareheaded, a hat-one old, one new-in either hand, I trooped back downstairs. From the library I heard the sound of a heavy object hitting the carpet, and I dashed into the room to investigate. I had assumed Warthrop was still in his study.
The doctor was sitting on the floor before the hearth, stoking the fire. Beside him sat his father’s old trunk. If he noticed my appearance, he gave no sign of it, as he threw open the lid and, one by one, began tossing the contents into the crackling conflagration. The flames leaped and spat with each addition (the smell of the shrunken head’s hair was particularly pungent). I came to his side and sat down. He barely took notice.
The heat intensified upon our faces. He tossed in the old letters, one by one. If he noticed one had been opened (I am quite lonely at times and do not feel entirely at home here), he gave no sign. In fact, his face betrayed no emotion at all, neither sorrow nor anger, regret or resignation. He might have been engaged in a mundane chore rather than the destruction of the sole remaining evidence of his father’s existence.
“What have you got there, Will Henry?” he inquired without taking his eyes from the purifying pyre.
I looked down at the two hats lying side by side in my lap. I raised my head and studied his face, turned away from my own, turned toward the fire. Upon his angular profile shadow warred with light, the obscured visible, the hidden revealed. His father had named him Pellinore in honor of the mythical king who quested after a beast that could not be caught, an act of thoughtless cruelty, perhaps; at the least a fateful portent, the passing on of a hereditary malady, the familial curse.
“My hat, sir,” I answered.
“Which one, Will Henry? That is the question.”
The fire popped and crackled, snapped and growled. That is it, thought I. A fire destroys, but it also purifies.
I tossed my old hat into the center of the flames. Warthrop gave merely the slightest of nods, and in silence we watched the fire consume it.
“Who knows, Will Henry,” he said after it had been reduced, like the effluvia of his father’s life, to ashes. “Perhaps this burden you bear will prove a blessing.”
“A blessing, sir?”
“My colleague nicknamed arawakus the ‘Fountain of Youth Contagion.’”
“Does that mean I’ll never grow up?”
He lifted my new hat, his first gift to me, from my lap and dropped it upon my head. “Or that you will live forever-to carry on my work. Talk about turning burdens into blessings!”
The monstrumologist laughed.
EPILOGUE. May 2008
One hundred and twenty years after the conclusion of the “Anthropophagi Affair,” I called the director of facilities to tell him I had finished reading the first three volumes of William Henry’s remarkable journal.
“And?” he asked.
“And it’s definitely fiction.”
“Well, of course it is.” He sounded annoyed. “You didn’t find anything that might help us identify him?”
“He calls it ‘New Jerusalem,’ but there’s no such town, at least not in New England.”
“He changed the name. He has to be from somewhere.”
“Well,” I said, “he mentions two towns, Dedham and Swampscott. Those are actual places in Massachusetts.”
“What about family? Brothers, sisters, cousins… anyone?”
“I’ve only read the first three notebooks,” I answered. “But he indicates his only relatives were his parents.” I cleared my throat. “I guess the police ran his prints when they found him?”
“Yes, of course. No matches.”
“He was given a full physical when they brought him in, right?”
“That’s standard, yes.”
“Did they-Do you normally run any kind of blood test?”
“What do you mean, like DNA?”
“Well. That too, but as part of the physical, do you guys perform a full workup on a person’s blood?”
“Of course. Why do you ask?”
“And there wasn’t anything… unusual about the sample?”
“I’d have to pull the file, but I’d remember if the doctor had told me there was. What are you getting at?”
“What about an autopsy? Is that SOP?”
“Not unless there’s suspicions of foul play or the family requests it.”
“Neither of which applies to Will Henry,” I said. “What was the cause of death?”
“He wasn’t sick right before he died, though? No fever, or maybe a rash?”
“He died peacefully in his sleep. Why?”
“He kind of gives an explanation for his age. Must have made it up, like everything else.”
He agreed. “Well, thanks for taking a look at them.”
“I’m not finished,” I said. “And I’d like to, if that would be okay. Do you mind if I keep them for a little while longer? Maybe I’ll run across something that’ll help.”
He said he didn’t mind; nobody had answered the ad, and all his inquiries, like mine, had yielded nothing. I promised to call back if I found something useful. I hung up, relieved: I was afraid he might have demanded the return of Will Henry’s journal before I could finish the remaining volumes.
Over the next few months, whenever I had the time to devote to it, I trolled the Internet, mining for any nugget of information that might lend credence to the journal’s authenticity. Of course I found many references to the mythical creature described in the preceding transcript, from Herodotus to Shakespeare, but nothing about an American invasion in the late nineteenth century. Nothing about a Monstrumolo-gist Society (or “monstrumology” for that matter-apparently it was part of a lexicon invented by Will Henry), and nothing to indicate a person named Pellinore Warthrop had ever existed. I found a reference online to a turn-of-the-century sanatorium in Dedham, though it wasn’t called Motley Hill, and its proprietor was not named Starr. I found no reference to a cargo vessel called Feronia grounding near Swampscott in 1865. There was no record of any ship wrecking there that year.
I perused several sources on the all-too-real personage of Jack the Ripper, but found no mention of the alias John Kearns or any theory that might support Will Henry’s startling claim that he had hunted monsters when he wasn’t hunting human beings. A very kind employee of the British Museum finally returned my calls regarding the personal papers of Sir Francis Galton, the father of eugenics, whom Warthrop claimed had been a close friend of his father’s. As I suspected, no mention of an Alistair Warthrop or anyone who remotely resembled him was contained in any of Galton’s letters.
I couldn’t find anything on Biminius arawakus, either. There is no myth-and, of course, nothing in the scientific literature-about a parasitic organism that somehow extends the natural life span of its host.
At times, immersed in this ultimately fruitless research, I would laugh at myself. Why was I wasting my time trying to find some shred of proof in what was so obviously a work of a demented man’s imagination? I felt pity for him. Maybe that’s a part of it. I don’t think Will Henry would have called it a work of imagination. I think he actually believed it was all true. It was fiction, obviously, but not a deliberate fiction.
Nearly four months after our conversation, I called the director again and asked where William James Henry was buried. The municipal cemetery turned out to be less than ten minutes from my house. I found a small stone marker there, etched with only his name, if that was his name, just another pauper’s grave among the scores of indigents’ plots. I wondered what the procedure was for requesting an exhumation of the remains. Standing at the foot of his grave, I was struck by the absurdity of the idea-why in the world would I want any of his strange story to be true?
On a whim, I squatted down and scratched at the ground with a stick, digging down four or five inches into the sandy topsoil. A recent thunderstorm had saturated the ground, and water immediately began to seep into my little hole.
I saw it after a minute or two, a tiny wormlike creature, not some fat night crawler or chubby grub, but something long and very thin squirming on the surface of the dark water. No thicker around than a human hair, Will Henry had said, describing the things that infested his father.
I fished the anonymous invertebrate from the hole with the end of my stick and held it up, squinting at it in the gloaming of that late summer’s day. I remembered Warthrop’s words from the journal-the method by which they infest a host is not known-and I flung the stick away in a moment of mindless panic.
Get real, I told myself, trying to laugh it off, and that brought to mind something else Will Henry had written. The words followed me as I beat a hasty retreat to the car and, beyond that, to my modern life in a world where room for monsters shrinks by the hour.
Yes, my dear child, monsters are real. I happen to have one hanging in my basement.