Hinnom maissue 002, p.7
Hinnom Magazine Issue 002, page 7
I carried my burden up the front stairs so Mrs. Zell would not see me. Once in my room I locked my door and lowered the sack into the jar which I had placed on my work table. With a set of shears, I split the sack on both sides of the carcass and with a little twitching of the sack, the body slipped out. It drifted gracefully into the fluid, tatters of decayed flesh fluttering about it like tiny wings. One of the small rear legs fell off and wafted slowly to the bottom of the jar. The body settled against the side of the glass: its head and left shoulder near the top of the surface of the alcohol, and its hindquarters resting on the bottom. Soon the body and the fluid into which it had been placed, were still. Its filmy eyes seemed to be looking at me. By this time, I had begun to notice the feeling returning to my left thumb.
I turned my desk chair around and sat in it, looking at the jar. The eyes of the creature still seemed fixed on me; they were an opaque gray-blue. I was struck again at what a chimera the thing is, at what impossible biological inheritances had come together so unbelievably and implausibly to create it. Now, at least, it is preserved in its jar and it will decompose no more but remain forever in its present suspended state until I can decipher its mysteries further. I think you will be the only person I tell about this thing, George, at least for now. I will cover the jar with a sheet when I am away. I cover the whole table most of the time, and the Morstan girl who cleans up for Mrs. Zell never disturbs the sheet when she’s in here. I think there is little chance she will discover my secret.
November 22, 1922
I wonder when you will receive my last letter and what your response will be? I hope you will respond, as I would like to have your reaction and opinion of the little dead thing. I will try to sketch it today and include that with this message.
The first action of a man displaced from his livelihood is to try to find his next employment in that same field. There is a limeworks in Ste. Odile, Seraphim Lime, it’s called. Their offices and small laboratory are on Mal Ardents Street. I walked there after mailing Friday’s letter. Mr. Arnot, who is in charge of the office and laboratory, agreed to see me, if grudgingly. His office is a glass-walled cubicle and it was freezing in there. He asked me to sit in an oaken chair opposite his desk. His face was purple and his corduroy vest could scarcely contain his stomach.
“Abel Jarre,” he said. “I have heard of you.”
“I am surprised.”
“Yes, I am in the Knights of Columbus, and one of my brothers there is Mr. Karl, your former supervisor.”
“Ah.” I felt my prospects here fade suddenly away. “I am surprised my name should come up between Lodge brothers.”
“He mentioned you Friday night, the day he dismissed you. He thought you might come here seeking work.”
I felt the anger rise inside me but I did my best to suppress it. “So, he was warning you then,” I said.
“He said you were not gregarious, not a joiner or a mixer. In fact, he said you have an argumentative and disagreeable nature. He mentioned you as a free thinker, an eccentric . . .”
“He and I have had our disagreements. I am nervous, high strung as my Lieutenant Allen used to say. But . . . I am not an atheist, if that’s what you mean by ‘free thinker,’ sir. Far from it.”
“I don’t see you in church. You’re not a Protestant, are you? In which case, you are as good as an atheist.”
“No, I was raised a Catholic. I speak to God in my own way. A more personal way. In the war, I started to see God differently than I had before, and I saw . . . that He wishes me to understand Him in a new light, different from the manner in which I was raised.”
“That does sound a little eccentric to me,” Arnot stifled a yawn. “We all need the Church whether we know it or not. Those who think otherwise are mistaken. Pure and simple. Isn’t up to each of us to interpret Scripture. Then everyone would do whatever they wanted. You are a single man . . . yes?”
“Yes. I have asked a young lady to marry me but she hasn’t answered me yet. If I get a new position, perhaps . . .”
“Karl told me you were in the 111th Pennsylvania. How did that come about?”
“There was nothing for me here . . . at the time. I had no family, or . . . I went to Pittsburgh for a new start, to see if I could work in the laboratory of a coal company, but the only job I could get was as a hand loader underground. Backbreaking work. Then we got into the war.”
Arnot looked at me as though he either didn’t believe my story or was not the least interested in it, I couldn’t tell which.
“I know you have experience and I could make a place for you immediately,” he finally said, “but I have to think about it. It’s a small space here to be closed up together all day. I don’t like to rock the boat. A different personality can rock the boat. I didn’t want to take Karl’s word alone about you. I wanted to hear your responses to his assertions for myself. I am a fair man, and as I said, there is work you could do now. But . . . I don’t know. Let me think it over. Your boarding house has a telephone? I will call in a few days if I decide to proceed. Thank you for coming in, Mr. Jarre.”
It had turned much colder in the brief time I had been at Seraphim. The walk home took me past Boyer’s Butcher Shop and I thought of stopping in to ask if there was any work available there, but I argued with Boyer a year ago about some spoiled mutton he sold me, and he has never seemed to like me much since. And besides, I was anxious to get back to my room to study the creature more and sketch it for you.
Before I could get back home, it began to snow; large, fluffy flakes that quickly blanketed grass, trees, and the brick, stone, and iron fences and gates of Ste. Odile. I stood on the front porch of the boarding house watching the snow fall. I was transfixed by the look of it, by the beautiful silence, and only when it struck me how cold my face and feet were did I realize I must have been standing there for a very long time. I find that my attention wanders more and more lately, and I often forget what I am about. Back in my room I uncovered the jar and for all the world I could swear that the creature had moved a little. Its head seemed deeper below the surface of the alcohol and its left forelimb wasn’t in the same position as before.
Its eyes had seemed to move too. I stared at it in mild disbelief for fully five minutes, but I detected no twitch or tremor. The animal’s filmy orbs seemed to be looking deeply into my own eyes. As I stood looking down at it on the tabletop, it was peering directly back at me. When I pulled my chair next to the table, sat and looked at it again, it was still looking at me. I sat as still as I could for thirty minutes and didn’t take my eyes off of it. I saw not the slightest suggestion of movement. I removed my sketching diary from my desk, found a pencil and started to draw the thing. As I sketched, concentrating on getting just the right curvature of the odd skull, in my peripheral vision, I thought I perceived the creature twitch slightly. When I looked directly at it I could see there was some little disturbance to the liquid in the jar, but saw no sign of change in the creature.
The snow continued to fall heavily. There are but a handful of automobiles in Ste. Odile, and I could hear that one of them had become stuck in a snow bank on the street below. I looked out my window and saw the yellow Packard of Robert Dufresne half-buried in a drift, tires spinning uselessly. This was the same Dufresne I mentioned in a letter of last spring who objected to my membership in the Ste. Odile Ethical Union and was solely responsible for my rejected application. He got out of his car and examined his predicament. The solution, of course, was a push. He was in need of someone to push him out. After a second he glanced upward and saw me looking at him from my window. After a few seconds more, when I was sure he recognized me, I turned and resumed my seat. Did I do the wrong thing, George? It was spitefulness, wasn’t it? It was a prideful and vengeful sin and I wish now I had done otherwise.
I heard a rustle of paper behind me. I turned to see that Mrs. Zell or one of her girls had slipped a note un
My family has helped me realize that the affection I have felt for you for the past year is more in the nature of friendship than romantic love. I am honored by your proposal of marriage, but given the limitations of my feelings for you, I know it would be a mistake to accept it, one which we would both soon regret. In addition, we have heard of your being terminated from your job, news which further sullies any notion of a comfortable future with you which any woman might entertain. My greatest wish is that you find a lady who can return your feelings in kind. Thank you for your attentions to me and best of luck.
So, there was my answer. I am a poor prospect, and it seems she never loved me anyway! I always suspected as much, and her note came as no great surprise. Still, it was painful, to see it written out like that. I will go for a walk in a little while and try to clear my head or distract my thoughts, whichever seems more appropriate at the time. I sat back down at my desk.
I added a few finishing touches to my sketch of the creature. Satisfied I had reproduced it accurately, I will include it with this letter and get it in the mail to you.
December 4, 1922
It has been so long since I have heard from you. I check the mail anxiously every day, and with some excitement, yet nothing comes. Of course, Mrs. Zell knows of my unemployment now. She has said if I have no new job by the end of this month, she would prefer that I find other lodgings because she has no place for transients—as I will shortly be! No house will take in an unemployed man when I am put out of here, so it is becoming almost certain that I must leave town.
Yet, I start every day with more hope than the day proves to warrant. There is expectation of some boon or positive helpful thing, that could happen, but what that could specifically be, I cannot define. All I know is that no such thing does happen. Every day is the same. I awake at four or five in the morning. I toast some bread and fry an egg for my breakfast and I sit for an hour or more and look at the dead thing in the jar. I still have no notion of what it is or where it fits into Nature. I sketched it again and sent that to John Stubbs, one of my zoology professors at Carthesian, but no response yet. He may think I am trying out some practical joke on him. I will need to buy a camera and photograph it.
The most striking thing about the creature, I say again, is what an impossible mixture of heritages it is. It defies what little I understand about genetical science. I wonder how intelligent it was. I wonder if it had thought processes of a predator, which are necessarily more complex than those of prey animals. And I wondered where more of the species might be or if it was the last of its kind. I still own a copy of The Classification of Higher Vertebrates by Hawkins, from my undergraduate days, and an antique copy of Compendium Naturalis Mundi by Van der Meet which I found in a bookseller’s stall a few years ago in St. Louis. I found nothing in either of these which in any way corresponds to my creature. I walked to the small Ste. Odile public library on Bucephalus Street, but their sad collection of volumes on natural history also contained no reference or image of anything I could relate to my animal. I hope that Stubbs will take an interest and help me with this. Perhaps my letter will induce him to come look at it, as I can’t quite imagine carrying the jar with me on the train. On my way home from the library, I asked for work at the bakery and Broussard’s Pharmacy, but was given no encouragement from either. Back at home I clipped tatters of flesh from the creature in three different places and have prepared slides for such a time when I may have access to a microscope and examine them in detail, or send them to Stubbs for examination.
I watch the thing and watch it. Sometimes for a moment I am distracted by something, perhaps something I have never noticed before in my surroundings. Something unextraordinary elsewhere in my room like the smoothness of my desktop or the weight of my pocket watch or penknife, or even re-reading Lucy’s note, and my attention wanders. It is only at those times that I think I notice that the thing moves, almost imperceptibly. If there is some spark of life in it and it wishes to deceive me, it is failing at that, because I know what I am seeing is real.
And at night in my bed when the room is dark, I sometimes think I hear the movement of liquid, a slight sloshing sound, but I can’t be sure about that. At those moments, it seems there is no other sound in the world, no human activity in the street, no animal noise or boats on the river, nothing but the sound in the jar, that liquid sound. A terror strikes me that if the thing would turn out to be alive, the lid of the jar could not contain it, and in the dark while I sleep, it could be abroad in the room with me. By the time I get the light on to investigate, there is nothing to be seen. Then I must take some of my bromide to settle into sleep again.
I have started to duplicate everything I have written you in a journal. I wanted to have my own copy of this experience, otherwise it may be lost. It seems less likely every week that you will ever answer these letters.
I should start packing my things, but most days I don’t have the energy or concentration to do it. Mrs. Zell hardly speaks to me at all now, except to remind me of what day of the month it is. I told her I have inquired at most of the other boarding houses in town but they either have no room for me or do not want me. I continue to have no luck in finding any kind of job. Since my dismissal from Osage Lead, my reputation has spread across town. An undeserved reputation, an unfair one, I hope. I should consider moving to St. Louis or maybe back to Pittsburgh. The society of this little town is closed and unwelcoming. Humans are social creatures and when an individual is ostracized by his group and cast out, it leaves an emptiness in his soul which defies description. There is no more certain way to kill a man that that, I think. I have a little more than thirty dollars to my name.
Yes, I should begin packing but sometimes I don’t think I move for hours at a stretch. From time to time I wonder if I should go out or stay in. I ask myself where I would go if I went out? If I went out I would pass men in the streets who have wives and families, friends and coworkers. Yes, they have all of those gifts from above, they have a place in the order of things, the clear and well-understood blessing of God. I will not have my Lucy, nor anyone else, most likely. So, it seems to me now. But none of those men have what I have. None of them have this secret. I stare for hours at the thing in the jar because now I know, I am sure, it must be watching me. I want to see it move directly, not suspect it has moved. I want to know unambiguously that there is some little glimmer of life in it. I possess this thing. I have a connection to it and no one else on earth may say that. If my prospects are few and unpromising, maybe there is some way I can exploit that connection, or use it to secure some livelihood, some sort of future for myself? This creature was put in front of me for a reason, surely. Finding it, classifying it and describing it to the world is obviously what I am meant to do. Most of the time I am certain of this. Other times I am not so sure. Maybe exploitation of this animal would be wrong. I am a private man. Maybe God put it in my way because I am so private. Maybe God’s plan for me in His creation has always been with regard to this creature. It is so hard to know what God wants. Why would this responsibility be given to me? The only reason I can imagine is that this is the answer I have been seeking these four years. I just have to understand it.
I will go to sleep now. The silence is what is so oppressive. Any little sound can become frightening, can seem to be a threat or be distorted by my imagination. Did I hear the lid of the jar move? Did I hear the movement of liquid? If I hear activity on the street or the sounds of other people in the house, any troubling sound is masked or hidden. There is none of that now, so I try to sleep so I will hear nothing that will unsettle me. Tomorrow I will pawn anything I still have which may be of value and pack my things. I will buy a train ticket to St. Louis. It appears I must go to St. Louis.
George, the creature moved! Just as I was awakening from a nap, I saw it, clearly and without doubt. It twitched and some white particles floated up from the tear in its skin. A stab of terror shot through my stomach as I watched it floating in its liquid until the ripples in the jar subsided. Slowly I got out of my bed and approached it. Now its filmy eye did not seem to be watching me, but only staring vacantly at the wall behind me. As I neared the jar I could see that the white particles which had floated up from the tear in the creature’s skin were bitten-off fragments of the maggots I had seen inside it the day I recovered it from under the bush. Slowly and carefully, I lifted the heavy lid from the jar and looked down at the thing inside. I looked into the torn flesh of the back. The tissue inside it was a nondescript blue-gray confusion of subcutaneous fat and muscle and collapsing gray blood vessels. But something else beyond these caught my attention. It was a familiar shape, but one I could not quite define or make sense of. Suddenly the shape quivered and slid downward across a glistening and awakening orb. It was an eyelid blinking across a yellow, sensate eye!
by C. P. Dunphey have rating 4 out of 5 / Based on32 votes