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Anathema by David Dalessandro

Anathema

David Dalessandro

slwc08@mac.com

Summary

1856. A bookish medical student, a feisty eighteen-year-old Quaker maid, a lesbian naturalist and a grizzled war veteran team up to destroy a monstrous creature that arrives in the hold of a derelict whaling vessel. A novel that combines the rich period detail of "The Alienist" with the "we need to kill the monster" urgency of " Jaws."

As the mysterious creature stalks the island at night, the intrepid quartet must first use extant scientific knowledge to determine the nature of the threat and then isolate and destroy the creature on the deck of a salvaged clipper ship.

Ref. No. 120308hr
Length 80.000 words


From The Book

ANATHEMA

Or,

The Hemophage

 

A CHRONICLE OF THE CURIOUS OCCURRENCES ON THE ISLAND OF NANTUCKET IN THE YEAR OF OUR LORD EIGHTEEN HUNDRED AND FIFTY SIX, INCLUDING A SUPPOSITION REGARDING THE LOSS OF THE WHALING VESSELS 'CERES' AND 'BALEEN'; THE SUBSEQUENT HORROR VISITED UPON THE ISLAND AND ITS AFTERMATH; WITH HERETOFORE UNPUBLISHED SCIENTIFIC OBSERVATIONS AND HYPOTHESES RELATED TO THE EVENTS THEREIN; AND COMPRISED OF CONTEMPORANEOUS JOURNALS AND PUBLIC PAPERS, ALONG WITH SUPPLEMENTARY NARRATIVE BY THE AUTHOR.

 

 

 

 

PREFACE

Two years have passed since the events chronicled herein. The memories tied to that terrifying week are still vivid and capable of inducing the occasional nightmare. At the request of my mentor, Dr. Josiah Redfern, I have agreed to commit my recollections to the printed page.

I have described as truthfully and objectively as possible the experiences of my brave band of fellow travelers, supplemented with such personal and public materials as other participants were willing to share or are available, in the hopes that this archive may provide both a record for scholars and scientists should a like matter ever again occur.

May this document stand as a testament to the fact that our natural world holds secrets yet discovered or, when discovered, remain beyond our comprehension.

 

Respectfully Submitted,

Balthazar Andrews, MD

Boston, 1858

 

 

 

CHAPTER ONE

 

My adventure began when Dr. Redfern sent a messenger to my rooming house bearing a request that I appear at his private residence with all due haste. Although an unusual summons, I complied.

I bade a cheery goodbye to my landlady, Mrs. Winifred Castle, and promised to return in time for our Sunday game of bezique, a routine we began shortly after I rented a room on the third floor of her abode.

I stepped into a brilliant August morning. The air was clean, the sky blue and birds chirped merrily.

I walked briskly, as is my habit, stopping only to exchange pleasantries with the police officer on the corner. A stray dog padded alongside me for several blocks before deciding there were more worthwhile pursuits.

Dr. Redfern's red brick home was situated on a tree-lined street in the fashionable section of Cambridge. I swung open the pedestrian gate in the cast-iron fence surrounding the property and traversed the manicured walkway to the varnished oak front door. I rapped the brass knocker twice to announce my arrival.

Asa, my mentor's Negro butler, greeted me with his usual warm smile. He ushered me across the burnished wood floor of the atrium and drew open two massive pocket doors.

"Might I serve you coffee or tea?"

"No, I'm fine," I replied.

I had been in my mentor's home for the occasional reception, but this was first time I had been invited into his inner sanctum.

It was a splendid study, one befitting Dr. Redfern's stature as both a member of the faculty at Harvard and a world-renowned pathologist. Beneath a Palladian window stood a desk equipped for writing, with inkwells, open journals and a banker's chair. A settee and two Windsor armchairs, each upholstered in burgundy leather, faced a massive hearth.

Bookshelves dominated the room. They rose from floor to ceiling, with only an occasional bust or keepsake to interrupt the rows of books. A cursory examination of one section devoted to medical and natural sciences revealed Sir Charles Bell's The Hand and Vesalius's De Humani Corporis Fabrica, both of which, to my inexpert eye, appeared to be first editions.

"Good of you to come, Andrews," Dr. Redfern said as he entered.

My mentor was a tall, slim man of fifty years. His gray hair was close-cropped and a neatly trimmed beard accented the contours of his sharp jaw line. He wore a burgundy jacquard vest, white shirt, black silk puff tie and black stovepipe trousers.

He motioned me to the settee. "A matter of interest has arisen. Are you currently available for, say, the next two days?"

"I am engaged in private tutoring but my schedule is flexible."

"Excellent." My mentor removed a meerschaum pipe from his collection and packed it with tobacco from a leather pouch. He struck a match, lit the pipe and the distinctive scent of Balkan Sobranie tobacco drifted toward me.

"I have received a request for a consultancy from a former colleague, Dr. Ezekiel Stewart. He has a medical practice on the island of Nantucket. You are familiar with the place?"

"An island off Cape Cod."

"Thirty miles off, approximately. At any rate, Dr. Stewart also serves as the local coroner. He has written asking for my assistance in a medical matter, an undertaking that would require my presence on the island. I am not available, since, as you know, I leave in the morning for the Continent, where I will lecture in Vienna and Paris."

"May I inquire as to the nature of the consultancy?"

"A man's body recently washed up upon the Island's shore. Dr. Stewart has requested my assistance in providing a second opinion regarding the autopsy." My mentor puffed thoughtfully. "I would like you to stand in my stead."

I was dumbfounded by the turn in the conversation.

"You look as though you have just seen a ghost, Andrews."

"Naturally, I am flattered, but wonder if I am qualified to undertake this task."

"You are too modest. You have observed me on numerous dissections. I find you inquisitive yet dutiful, not given to flights of fancy or leaps of logic, a true apostle of the scientific method. All expenditures related to travel and lodging have been accounted for, as well as a modest personal stipend." He paused. "It would be a favor for which I would be grateful."

He walked toward his desk. "Not to put too fine a point on it, but Dr. Stewart is, I fear, ambling toward his dotage. I am certain your sharp eye and training will provide him the second opinion he requested." He smiled wryly. "In truth, I have long left such pedestrian investigations behind."

Redfern retrieved a leather envelope from the desk drawer. He tapped it against his palm as he walked back toward me. "I would be happy to sponsor a journal publication if your work there proves of interest."

He extended the envelope. "Within, you will find Stewart's autopsy report, a map of the island with Stewart's office circled, a ticket on a supply vessel which leaves for Nantucket on the morrow, and your cash stipend. Suitable lodgings have been arranged for you by Dr. Stewart."

Given the opportunity thus presented, I took the envelope and accepted the consultancy.

Asa entered. "Your carriage awaits, sir."

"Ah, duty calls." Asa held a frock coat and Redfern slipped into it. "A fund-raising event in support of fugitive slaves." He took the proffered coachman's hat. "I look forward to a full report upon my return, Andrews. Be well."

"And you, sir, have a safe voyage."

I walked home with a lilt in my step. Fortune had smiled upon me and I was determined to validate my mentor's confidence in my abilities. Moreover, there was the real possibility of attribution in a journal article.

When the events described herein unfolded, I was twenty-four years old and engaged in the study of medicine at the Massachusetts Medical College of Harvard University. I believed myself to be reliable and meticulous. I had no vices, other than an occasional cigar, and no romantic entanglements, preferring to save my energies for my studies. I supported myself with a stipend from Dr. Redfern, in return for assisting him in his research, and served as a private tutor in natural science for students at several local academies.

As I continued my stroll home, it was only natural to recall the events that had led me to this moment in my life.

My father was an accounting clerk at a shoe factory. A compact man, he was precise in movement and speech, fastidious in his grooming. My mother was tall and slender, her skin translucent, her eyes the palest blue imaginable. When I was younger, I thought her somehow fragile, in need of my protection. As I matured, I understood she drew from an unlimited reserve of patience and resolve. She was my caretaker, my ballast and a constant source of love and reassurance.

In my youth, I was pale and scrawny, beset by a variety of nagging medical ailments. I spent most of my time indoors and became a voracious reader, fairly devouring text after text. My favorite was Darwin's Voyage of the Beagle, but I was also drawn to a certain type of novel represented by The Three Musketeers and Ivanhoe. The exploits of heroes in the service of a maiden or kingdom held great allure for a bedridden boy. My reading list also included Mary Shelley's Frankenstein and macabre stories by Edgar Allan Poe.

My sister Nan, a sprite with freckled cheeks and five years my junior, bounded into my room on a regular basis and requested that I read aloud to her. She sat at the foot of the bed, chin in hands, enraptured, it seemed, by every word I spoke.

I was buoyed by Nan's bright-eyed wonder of the mundane–winter's first snowfall, a full moon, an ant lugging a crumb–and assumed she would always be around to brighten my mood.

By the time I reached the age of fourteen, my body had sprouted and such maladies as affected me did vanish. Unfortunately, at the same time, Nan succumbed to a bout of influenza. There was nothing I could do to intervene, and this induced in me a sense of helplessness. Her death also resulted in my anger toward God, for I could think of no reason a spirit as vibrant as my sister should have been extinguished at such a young age. (My mother was a Unitarian and suffered Nan's death with an equanimity borne of strong faith. My father, nominally Episcopalian, found his faith shaken and never mentioned matters of God or religion again.)

My supply of angst was eventually depleted. However, a nagging guilt remained, since Nan's demise and my own burgeoning vitality were forever linked.

After Nan's death, I spent every free hour outdoors in the large public park a few blocks from our home. I became an obsessive observer of the natural world, fascinated with the breadth of creation. I learned to collect and meticulously catalogue specimens, as well as record a detailed journal of my observations, convinced that I would one day discover some unknown variation of frog or grasshopper. (Upon reflection, I do believe that Darwin's tale of the natural world did drive much of my fieldwork and ambition.)

It was not surprising that I was drawn to a course of study in the natural sciences at the College of New Jersey, located a short distance from my home. While there, a number of my character traits — a desire for solitude, a preference for contemplation over physical exertion, a reliance on logic over emotion — calcified and I became a man perfectly happy to be alone in a laboratory late at night. During my sophomore year my father passed away. My mother would remarry and move to Philadelphia by the time I completed my studies.

I gained employment as an instructor in natural science at Phillips Exeter Academy and remained there for two years. At some point in my rumination about my future, the idea of earning a degree in medicine took hold. In retrospect, I understand this impulse probably found its origin in Nan's death, but I also believed the rigors of medical study would be a more substantive intellectual challenge than teaching well-heeled young men for whom prep school was merely a right-of-passage.

I gained entrance to the Massachusetts Medical College, where I came under the tutelage of Dr. Redfern.

 

#

When I returned home, Mrs. Castle called me into the parlor for our game of bezique. I had no taste for such amusements, but played because she drew obvious enjoyment from the pastime.

"What did Dr. Redfern want that could not wait until tomorrow?" she asked as she picked up the deck of cards.

"He has dispatched me to Nantucket."

"Nantucket? For what possible reason?"

Mrs. Castle was a woman of strongly held opinions and an abiding devotion to her African violets. She wore only black, a sartorial choice occasioned by the death of her beloved husband Charles, who was trampled by a runaway carriage nearly ten years before.

"Are you familiar with the island?" I asked, gathering my cards as she deftly dealt them.

"Only that the island is run by Quakers. Best place for them, in the middle of the ocean, what with their unconventional ideas about social matters." She set down her meld. "They all got rich on whale oil."

I knew that Nantucket was a major whaling center. However, I was surprised by her categorization of Quakers. "What of their unconventional ideas?"

She made her scoring notation on her paper pad. "For one, it is said the women run the business of the island." She began the play of the hand. "What is it that you will do there?"

"I am to consult with the local coroner."

She looked up sharply. "I do hope you are being compensated for this service."

"I received a generous cash stipend."

"How long will you be gone?"

"I imagine I will return by Tuesday afternoon," I replied as I watched her trump my play and sweep up the cards.

"I shall have dinner waiting. Corned beef and cabbage, your favorite."

In point of fact, I had never stated a preference for any particular dish, but chose not to correct her. Food was merely a necessary inconvenience, hardly worth a second thought.

After I lost three hands, I excused myself and repaired to the enclosed front porch. I sat amidst the African Violets and read the report Dr. Redfern had provided.

A man in his early twenties had been washed ashore and discovered by a young boy and his mother. The discovery was duly reported to the Sheriff's office. A deputy named Joshua Kane was dispatched and, not finding a pulse, concluded the man had drowned. The man carried no identification.

The body was consigned to Dr. Stewart. His autopsy report, however, was incomplete, in that it did not contain a conclusion on either a cause or manner of death. "Cause of death" related to the medical reason for cessation of life, such as drowning, while "manner of death" would determine whether death was accidental or due to criminal activity. These omissions piqued my curiosity, but I thought it best to make no assumption regarding the case.

I went up to my room and packed. My uncle is a successful attorney in New York City and I am happy to accept his hand-me-downs of clothing or equipment, one very useful specimen of which was a leather Gladstone bag. I packed four pair of drawers (custom-made by dear Mrs. Castle), two banded collar shirts, three pair of socks, and a pair of herringbone trousers, a union suit and toilet supplies. For the voyage itself, I set out a banded shirt, corduroy trousers with braces and, of course, preacher boots.

In addition, I prepared my trusted satchel, a gift from my parents upon my departure to the university. Constructed of saddle leather, it sported numerous pockets, brass buckles, and a shoulder strap. Now, the leather softened from years of use and sporting various scrapes and scars, it was a handsome accoutrement. It held my journals, writing implements, several specimen collection bottles, and a Coddington magnifier and folding brass monocle.

As I wound my alarm clock, I had no way of knowing that what awaited me on the island of Nantucket was a horror that exceeded anything conjured from the imagination of Mr. Poe or Mary Shelley.

 

 

 

CHAPTER TWO

 

The West Wind was a handsome clipper, with three masts and twenty sails. (I counted them out of mere curiosity.) I understood it would stop at Nantucket to drop off sundry supplies and then continue on to the islands of the Caribbean.

I spent much the voyage incapacitated from seasickness (some Darwin, I!). My travails brought good-natured ribbing from the crew, who found me an interesting diversion. Needless to say, I did not touch the boiled egg and apple Mrs. Castle had provided me as I walked out the door earlier that morning.

I was, as far as I could determine, the only passenger on the ship who was not a member of the crew. Upon my arrival at the wharf, I was handed off to the First Mate, who ushered me to his own cabin. This deference did not surprise me, nor did the fact that Dr. Redfern was able to book passage on the supply vessel with short notice.

Josiah Redfern cast a long shadow across the Harvard campus and medical laboratories. Granted, much of this was deserved due to his significant research accomplishments. However, his shadow was elongated, or darkened, depending on your view, by an undercurrent that churned beneath the calm surface of faculty politics. This combination of awe and envy was not based on the Beacon Hill dinner parties he frequented, or the stunning women he squired, for most faculty would have gladly stood in his stead, if invited.

Rather, he was the subject of rumors regarding certain activities that required his absence from the classroom or laboratory, always at a moment's notice. The fact that these absences were allowed to pass without comment from the administration — that is, that Redfern seemed to possess an unspoken license to do as he pleased — evoked grousing among his peers.

Because the nature of these extracurricular activities were unknown, in that they did not lead to journal articles or even an explanation from Redfern himself, they provided ample grist for the faculty club rumor mill and led to hushed references concerning secretive government agencies or supernatural investigations.

To be chosen by the estimable Dr. Redfern to be his lab assistant understandably provided me with an elevated standing among my fellow students that my own work, regardless of its merit, would not. (This explains my ready compliance to his unexpected summons on a Sunday morning.)

My stomach eventually settled and I made my way up the stairwell onto the main deck of the clipper. The wind buffeted me as I found a spot amidships in the narrow space between two lifeboats. The ship plowed through the ocean and sent an occasional spray of seawater across the deck.

I became acutely aware of my surroundings. There was, of course, the ever-present sound of the wind caught in the billowing sails. The great beams of the vessel creaked under the strain of the passage. The brisk, salt-tinged air was bracing.

No land was visible in any direction. It was a different world from the hustle of Boston or any city; isolated and, in its way, quite humbling, for in this environment Man seemed insignificant, unable to shape this liquid world in the way he did the dirt and stone of land. We would leave no trace of our existence as we passed.

"Are we close to Nantucket?" I asked a tall sailor as he coiled a thick rope.

"Aye. It's out there, for sure," he shouted and pointed in the general direction of the bow. I took out my monocle and scanned the horizon, but saw only a thick bank of fog ahead. I assumed that my destination was located within that misty shroud.

A short while later, the deck of the clipper exploded with activity. Sailors hustled about with clear purpose and maneuvered the sails according to a logic known only to men of the sea. As the port drew closer, the enormous chains near the front of the ship sang out and the vessel slowed perceptibly.

I moved to the railing and watched as ropes were tossed down to waiting hands on the dock. I admit to a sense of excitement as I stared out at the place that represented the destination of my first ocean voyage.

A forest of masts reached to the sky from the various vessels tethered to six docks. Of note were large ships whose blackened hulls glistened in the sun, as though soaked with oil. In addition, multitudes of other craft bobbed in the open harbor or were secured to the docks, a wide variety that included smaller sailboats, rowboats, and a surprising number of steam-powered vessels, identified by their smokestacks and paddle wheels. I noted a large sign that indicated one dock was reserved for the 'Steamship Authority.'

Low-slung warehouses edged the wharf area before me. In addition, numerous shanties rested upon wood and stone pilings. In the distance, beyond the harbor proper, narrow sandy beaches stretched as far as the eye could see. A number of impressive homes were scattered at the higher reaches of the island, indicating an obvious prosperity. A lighthouse was visible far down the shore.

A raucous cacophony punctuated this picturesque scene. The source of this racket was a multitude of seagulls that strutted about the docks or glided gracefully upon air currents.

A squat sailor sidled up to me.

"This way, sir." He ushered me to a gangway. Several huge pulley contraptions were already lowering pallets of wood from the hold to waiting horse-drawn wagons.

I walked down the gangplank on unsteady legs and with a few strides was on solid ground again. It took a few moments to gather myself as I leaned against a dock post.

A veritable hornet's nest of activity swirled about me, over which floated a continual hubbub of shouted instructions and arguments. It certainly was cooler than Boston, a fact I concluded must have something to do with the ocean breezes and currents, though I had no real understanding of the physics behind such an effect.

The din faded as I walked away from the docks and onto Main Street. I found it alive with activity. Carriages moved along with a rhythmic clacking of hooves against cobblestone. A man wearing a battered Stetson shouted at the top of his lungs, "Oyez, oyez, ferry from the Vineyard arrives in one hour." Vendors stood on corners, selling fresh fruits and vegetables from wheeled carts.

I unfolded the map Dr. Redfern provided and made my way to the office of Dr. Ezekiel Stewart, passing under numerous signs that dangled above the sidewalk, identifying establishments named the Rusty Scupper, Iron Skillet, Tinder Box and other delightfully descriptive names.

Two impressive buildings dominated the corner of Main and Centre Street. A red brick Federalist structure held the Pacific Bank, while the Methodist Church sported a particularly handsome colonnaded façade. I turned onto Centre and soon arrived at a narrow storefront next to the Hardware Emporium. "Ezekiel Stewart, Doctor of Medicine and Apothecary" was lettered on the frosted glass entry door.

I entered to the tinkling of a bell and encountered a hulking man in a lab coat conversing with a nurse matron.

"Good morning. My name is Balthazar Andrews. I seek Dr. Ezekiel Stewart."

The man nudged the nurse out of the way and extended his hand. "I'm Dr. Stewart." The scent of scotch floated gently toward me.

From his wild gray muttonchops to his hefty stomach, Dr. Ezekiel Stewart appeared to be inexorably coming apart at the seams, both literally and figuratively. His stained pants were in need of pressing, the cuffs on his shirt were threadbare, his full head of hair sprouted like an unkempt garden and he had cut himself at least twice during his morning shave. His bulbous nose had the distinct florid tone of a man who enjoyed 'pulling a cork.' The features of his face had little more definition than a bowl of pudding.

"Dr. Redfern sends his regards and wishes he were able to honor your request. However, he departed Boston for Europe this morning. "

Dr. Stewart set his index finger against his lip as he studied me. "I see," he finally said, disappointment evident in his weary tone.

I noted a dozen labeled bottles sitting on a nearby table. "You have produced your own elixir?" I asked, in an attempt to lighten the moment.

Dr. Stewart perked up considerably. He retrieved a bottle and handed it to me. I noted the 'square and compass' on his ring, emblematic of the Freemasons.

"'Stewart's Splendid Superior Elixir,' guaranteed to alleviate a wide variety of common maladies, from the common cold to gout," he proclaimed with obvious pride. "A concoction of my own recipe, based upon tincture of opium. I seek a distributor in Boston."

I handed the bottle back. "I will keep that in mind."

He frowned and carefully replaced the bottle. "Let us retire to my office."

I followed his shambling gait past an examination room and into his cramped office. He removed a stack of books from a wooden chair and motioned me to sit. He dropped into the bentwood swivel chair behind his desk like a sack of potatoes, rubbed his eyes and sighed. "How long have you practiced, Dr. Andrews?"

"I have not completed my studies. I serve as Dr. Redfern's research assistant."

"Research Assistant?" Stewart replied with a hint of incredulity. He leaned back, hooked his thumbs into his belt and stared at me. I took this to mean I was expected to present my credentials.

"I have taken anatomy and I have assisted Dr. Redfern with numerous dissections," I said quickly. "I am, therefore, familiar with his reasoning on a wide variety of medical matters."

Stewart harrumphed. "Very well, then. I trust my colleague's judgment that you will be helpful in this matter." He patted his ample belly. "I have not yet eaten. Let us repair to my apartment."

I followed him down the hallway and up a creaky stairway to a room containing a stove, dry sink, table, battered Chesterfield sofa and wardrobe. Daylight, filtered by a layer of dust on the single window, provided fitful illumination.

He gestured to three biscuits on a plate. "Might I offer you a scone?" As I sat, he grabbed the coffee pot from the stove, along with two cups from the dry sink.

"You have read my autopsy report?" he asked as he poured the coffee. No steam was evident, by which I concluded the beverage was not freshly brewed.

"Yes, sir. If I may be so bold, it is incomplete."

Stewart broke a piece of scone and put it in his mouth, chewing slowly. "That is correct."

I did not touch the proffered drink, my stomach still queasy from the voyage. I nibbled the scone and found it to be dry and tasteless.

He sipped his coffee, wincing, I assume, from its taste. "A curious matter, indeed."

"Would you care to elaborate?"

"The body is currently in the icehouse. Perhaps we should observe it there first and then I will have it brought to my examination room."

I wondered what possible purpose staring at the body in the icehouse would serve, but chose not to question his methods.

He finished the scone, slapped the crumbs from his hands and stood. "Off we go, then."

We headed back toward the harbor. "I have arranged for you to stay at the Mott farm. Abigail Mott has a small cottage where you will have privacy. Her husband Caleb is a whaling captain who was lost at sea. A tragic occurrence."

We turned down a narrow side street and ended up in front of a set of double doors. Two sullen young men stood against the wall, idly puffing on cigarettes. They snapped to as we arrived and pulled open the doors.

Inside, the doctor lit a lantern. In the dim light, I saw huge blocks of ice stacked along the walls. Slabs of meat impaled on hooks hung from the ceiling. The doctor opened yet another door and we entered, chasing our frosty breath.

In the middle of the room, the body of a naked man lay on a wooden table, his midsection covered with a sheet.

Stewart raised the lantern and placed it on a hook above the body.

In the pale light of the lantern, I stared at the corpse. The deceased's skin was ghostly white. I found this curious, since I would have expected a blue tinge brought on by the constriction of blood vessels in the frosty air.

"Deposited by the deep blue onto our shores like a piece of meaningless driftwood. Would that we not again witness the flame of youth extinguished by the harsh wind of fate!" Stewart spoke with a great booming voice in a theatrical manner. He stood motionless, arms extended, chin raised, as though a statue.

"I'm not certain why you would request a second opinion on a drowning victim."

His pose dissolved. "He most assuredly did not drown, for there is no salt water in his lungs."

His statement shook my confidence, for I had been cautioned many times by Dr. Redfern never to draw a conclusion before all available evidence had been analyzed. Yet, on my first solo consultation, I had incorrectly deduced that a dead man found on a beach must have drowned.

"Did your examination of the body reveal any possible other cause?"

Dr. Steward glanced at the corpse and then at me.

"As far as I can determine, Mr. Andrews, this man's body contains no blood."

 

 

 

CHAPTER THREE

 

Back out on the street, the warm air provided welcome relief. Dr. Stewart conversed with the two young idlers, who hurried back inside the icehouse.

"They will bring the body to my examination room."

"I am struck by your remarkable statement, sir, concerning the lack of blood in the body."

He did not respond but as we walked he spent his time greeting many of the passing townspeople.

Back at his office, we repaired to his examination room. The air was thick with the smell of carbolic acid. Several trays of medical instruments, jars of cotton balls and tongue blades, bottles of pills and a skeleton mounted on a rolling stand were in evidence and I felt very much in my element.

"I must retrieve my satchel," I said. He nodded and I found my way to the stairs. By the time I returned to the examination room, a large sackcloth bag lay on the examination table. Stewart handed the icehouse boys some coins and they departed.

"A sea shroud," Stewart explained as he cut the thread that secured the cloth and revealed the corpse. "Used aboard ships to consign the dearly departed to the deep."

I walked slowly around the table. The body showed signs of having been fed upon by sea life, with severe damage to the toes and fingers.

"When you say there was no blood in the body, you are not exaggerating?" I asked.

Stewart's brow knotted. "I have completed over fifty dissections, young man, and am a capable physician. I did not request assistance to complete the autopsy but to help me interpret my findings."

"I do not mean to impugn your expertise," I replied, "but when faced with a statement that a human body contains no blood, I must press the matter to my satisfaction."

Stewart drew himself up. "Very well. The heart and the vessels leading to the heart did not evidence a drop of blood. No clotting was evident. There was no pooling of blood anywhere in the body cavity. The kidneys were pale and so I dissected them and found no evidence of residual blood or clotting in the vessels. The liver was also pale and dry, with no clotting in either the portal vein or hepatic artery." He leaned against the wall and sighed. "I have never encountered a similar situation." He might have well been describing a bad dream, so softly did he speak.

"You are describing a condition beyond mere hemorrhage, sir. What you describe is properly termed 'exsanguination.'"

I estimated the victim to weigh around one hundred and seventy pounds, meaning his body should have contained approximately five liters of blood. If the femoral or carotid artery were opened, a great deal of blood would be lost very quickly and the victim would bleed to death. The loss of blood would cause the heart to cease beating and whatever remaining blood would pool in the body cavity. Yet the body evidenced no open wounds.

However, I noted a peculiar discoloration on the neck, above the carotid. I retrieved my Coddington magnifier and bent over the body. I observed six puncture marks arranged in a purplish semi-circle that resembled a quarter-moon. I concluded this mark was a tattoo, the presence of which bore no relevance to the case.

"What have you there?" he asked, rising up on his toes to look over my shoulder.

"The victim has a tattoo on his neck."

I handed my Coddington to Dr. Stewart. He bent over and examined the mark. "Indeed. I took it for a bruise."

The case presented fascinated me. I had never come across a similar instance in the lab nor in the medical literature. It was the sort of curious case upon which Dr. Redfern built his reputation.

"Let us consider possible explanations," I began. "The first is that this individual may have been anemic, a condition described by Anral, of the University of Paris, in a paper regarding the proper constituents of blood. However, that would not explain the total absence of blood. Next, let us consider hemophilia, where the afflicted individual lacks the ability to stop bleeding once having started. Recent studies have determined that this is due to the absence of a clotting factor." I stopped, my mind turning. "Where is this man's clothing?"

"I examined it and found it to be unremarkable. I ordered it burned."

"I take you at your word. Without the availability of a test for presumptive evidence of blood on clothing, I would have no way to move beyond your visual examination, in any case."

"What are your thoughts regarding the clothing?"

"Hemorrhagic fever."

"You refer to the yellow fever, of course."

"Indeed. It is a tropical disease, although it has appeared in our country, most notably in Philadelphia in 1791. At any rate, this fever causes hemorrhages, including the expulsion of blood through vomitus."

"Black vomit."

"His clothing would have borne evidence of this condition."

"His shirt was muslin and there was no visible evidence of such."

"Salt water will act upon blood and so would have removed the traces."

Stewart sighed heavily and rubbed his chin. "Perhaps. However, a bloodstain is quite difficult to remove completely. It would have left some visible discoloration."

"True."

This discourse was most enjoyable and I felt a growing acknowledgement from Dr. Stewart regarding my competence.

"Even yellow fever would not account for the utter lack of blood," I concluded.

"There is another possibility," Dr. Stewart said suddenly. "Rats are quite prevalent on board ships, and they do carry diseases. On a journey to a faraway land, could this young man have been bitten by a rat carrying an unknown plague?"

He raised his index finger. "One more thing. There is a section of flesh missing on the posterior, around the left shoulder, probably the work of a large fish. You can examine it if you wish, but my own sense is that it was post-mortem. At any rate, it could not possibly have been fatal."

"What side?"

"The left."

I placed my arm under the corpse's shoulder and lifted. It was as Dr. Stewart said, a bite wound not deep enough to expose the underlying muscle. "I concur with your assessment."

I returned the Coddington to my bag and walked to the water pitcher. I poured some water into the bowl and washed my hands. "Dr. Stewart, cause of death should be noted as hypovolemia. I can reach no conclusion over how this happened. Manner of death is, therefore, accidental, without criminal implications."

The doctor rested the elbow of his left arm in the palm of his right hand and tapped his finger against his lips. He moved his head slightly back and forth, as though weighing the evidence. "I had hoped that Dr. Redfern would have recognized this condition," he said.

"He has asked me to make a complete report to him. For all I know, he has seen this before. However, it is unknown to me."

"Yes, yes," Stewart replied, almost imperceptibly.

"If you do not mind, I would like to take a day to gather all the evidence in this matter for an article for submission to a medical journal. I believe we may have discovered an unknown disease or condition here."

Stewart nodded. "I see no reason why you should not pursue that course. I will summon a carriage to deliver you to the Mott farm." He placed his arm upon my shoulder. "It is none of my concern, but I suggest you consider extending your stay on our lovely island, for you may find relaxation of a much different nature than is available in Boston. It may well stimulate your thinking on this paper of yours."

I took my leave, excited by the possibility of a scientific discovery that could make my reputation.

 


About The Author
David Dalessandro

slwc08@mac.com

Wrote "Snakes on a Plane"


Copyright 2012 – 2013, David Dalessandro