by Jeremy Kuban
The knocking shattered the fragile windowpane silence of night. Doctor Ned Whallup had been asleep, but woke with a start. After lighting a candle, he hurried to the door as fast as his sluggish legs would allow.
As he approached the door, the knocking sounded again, this time accompanied by rapid breathing and the nervous shuffle of feet.
"Doctor," called a raspy voice from outside. "Doctor, please, you must help!"
Whallup opened the door to see a tall, disheveled, old man, haphazardly dressed in dirty clothes and carrying a reeking and stained knit sack. Red veins webbed the whites of the old man's eyes and furrows of desperation lined his sweat-streaked forehead.
"Doctor," pleaded the old man, "can you help? It's my wife. Can you help her Doctor, please?"
"Come in," said Whallup. "I must dress first. Tell me what is wrong with your wife, and where is she?"
"She's dead!" said the man. "Dead! She died at home a half-hour ago. But I brought her, Doctor, because I knew you could help her."
Dead? Whallup stumbled, but steadied himself with one hand on the doorframe. Brought her?
"Oh dear," said Whallup. "But if your wife is dead..."
"Dead. Yes, she's dead, but I brought her."
Poor fellow, thought Whallup. He's in shock, hysterical.
"Come now, my friend," Whallup entreated, "sit down and tell me what happened. Try to relax." He closed the door and led his visitor toward the parlor.
"My wife died!" hollered the old man. "She died and that's what happened. Will you help me?"
"If your wife is dead, sir, I cannot do anything. If only I could have reached her before she died, then perhaps..."
"Dead, yes, but Doctor I know you can help. I know there are ways. You refuse me because I'm poor, but believe me, I will give you anything if you help me; I will do anything. Please sir."
Ways? He must think I am a sorcerer, not just a country doctor.
The yellow candlelight bounced on the crumpled face, chasing away shadows and dragging them back. The wrinkles looked deeper, the skin drained to a colorless pallor. The old man looked vulnerable and frightened. That awful candlelight made the shadows jerk and spasm on the walls, made the ordinary look unreal, made desperation and hope on the face of an old man look like insanity.
"A sad thing," Whallup said. "Dead a half-hour you say? Yes, I'm sure there is nothing I could do, but I will have a look. Give me just a moment, and then you can take me to her."
"Here," said the old man, holding out the knit sack he carried. "Here she is."
Whallup felt a dreadful sensation fill him as he looked at the wet stains spreading from the bottom of the sack. And that smell was too familiar. That awful smell...
"Your wife is... in this bag?"
"Well, yeah. Y'know, the parts we'll need to use."
The parts? The parts?
Whallup took the bag, suppressing a fearful expectation that told him what he would find in it. Sickness grew inside of him as a deeper recognition of the smell registered. He opened the bag and held the candle over the mouth.
How could he not have dropped the bag in revulsion? How could he not have dropped the candle in shock?
In the ensuing flush of darkness, the old man cried out and rushed to cradle the fallen sack.
"You dropped her!" he cried. "You might have ruined her! How could you! You're a doctor, you do this all the time. How could you!"
Whallup was sorry not for the contents of the bag, but for the woman they had come from. He could only pray she really had been dead before....
"Please tell me," said Whallup, "how did your wife die?"
"How did she die?"
"Why did you bring me that? Why just those parts of her?"
"Because this is her," the old man's voice betrayed the quiver of weeping. "Everything she was, is here, right? The body doesn't matter, right?"
"And you cut them from her?"
"I've read books that explain it. They said just how it's done; I followed the directions exactly."
"You cut them from her?"
"YES! I cut them from her! How else do you think I got them out of her!"
"After she was dead?"
Whallup knew those words were a mistake as soon as he'd said them. He remembered he kept a medical bag in the room, and a particular instrument that he might need.
"You think I killed her."
"I don't," said Whallup, "but how did you know that she was dead?"
"I knew," yelled the old man. "I've seen death before; I know what it looks like, I know what it smells like, I know the way the body bends and changes color."
The dark swallowed up all sound when the two men stopped speaking. Each peered into the darkness where he thought the other was, but neither could be sure. Each strained his ears to hear the sound of the other's breathing, but in the narrow hallway, the muffled echoes disguised any indication of the location of the other.
Sound -- rustling.
"Where are you?"
"Where are you?"
Brittle metal struck the floor. Both men turned their heads, prickling with fear, while two hands pressed to the floor in frantic search.
"What are you doing?"
"What are you doing?"
"Are you going to help me?" asked the old man, his voice sounding tired.
"What do you want me to do?" asked Whallup.
"Put her back in another body," said the old man. "The books describe the procedure. They say that the self resides in the mind, not the body. They say that if a living mind were transferred from a dead body into a living body then the person would return."
What books has this man been reading? Whallup wondered. Aloud, he declared, "It can't be done."
"Why not?" growled the old man.
Whallup explained, "To put this brain in a living body, you must first remove the brain that occupies that body. When that brain is removed, the body will die."
"But there must be a way," said the old man. "We at least have to try."
"To do this would require killing someone else. Would you deliberately inflict on someone else the suffering that you now feel?"
"Yes!" said the old man. "I would if I knew I could bring her back!"
"No," Whallup said. "We must accept death and live with it."
"I will not accept it. Not if I know there's something I can yet do about it."
The hands no longer groped across the wooden floor, having found the sharp edge they sought.
"You can't do anything," said Whallup. "Once the brain leaves the body it dies! Everything in your wife's brain is gone; it no longer exists. If you put that brain in another body nothing would happen."
A whisper of movement. Footsteps.
The front door opened and the old man, sack in hand, stood silhouetted in the faint glow of starlight. He turned to look at the doctor, who crouched a few feet away, a scalpel clenched in his trembling fist.
The old man spoke, leaving the doctor with a message of his cold determination; then he slammed the door. Footsteps receded across a patch of gravel, fading.
Moving quickly to lock the door, Whallup waited; pressed to the cool wood and listening. Finally, after several minutes, he retreated back to his bed. Sleep eluded him, as the parting words of the old man echoed in his mind. Does he really intend to follow through? Surely not. But, should the constable be notified...just in case? That would mean dressing and going out there -- in the dark -- where the grossly demented old man lurked. With his wife -- or rather with the sack.
But what if he meant it?
Whallup pulled blankets tighter and lay very still, very quiet, until dawn. The first light of day found him asleep. But plaguing his dream was an old man standing in the doorway with a sack in his hands -- that hideous sack! He looked tired, and insane.
And he said, "I'll do it somehow, Doctor. I'll find a way."
© 2011 Jeremy Kuban
Bio: This is Jeremy Kuban's fifth appearance in Aphelion. His most recent contribution was My Hands in the March 2010 edition.
E-mail: Jeremy Kuban
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