Friday, August 04, 2006

for Charlotte

He picked out the smallest bedroom on the second floor for his new quarters; it was shabby and dark, with no curtains and the ugliest yellow wallpaper he’d ever seen, but he’d lived in worse. At least it was well away from the attic workroom, and the double windows let in a cool breeze from the woodlot behind the house. That breeze was an important consideration, in St. Louis in August, when the night air clung like wet cotton, and a feather bed felt like a sweaty hand cupped around him.

Tired as he was after the restless night before, he got engrossed in the old London Physicians Monthly she’d given him and kept reading until long after dark, feeling vaguely decadent at the waste of lamp-oil. She’d marked the article on microorganisms for him to read, but he was more interested in the piece on treating nervous disorders. Having spent a year in an asylum, himself, he was grimly fascinated by the author’s theory that a sick mind was only a tired mind: like a machine, the brain could be overworked, and the best cure was complete rest. Trace had never seen a machine mend itself by sitting idle, and he’d only been cured by isolation and rest because he’d gotten smarter about not telling people when he could see things they couldn’t.

The small clock on the mantle chimed midnight, rousing him out of his light doze. He was so drowsy his head felt swimmy, but there was no need to be up at dawn to run down stray horses or get sleepy oxen moving, and he reckoned he’d best get used to her hours. Besides—the thought surfaced before he could dodge it—it had been five years since he’d tried to sleep in a room without Boz’s snoring.

He gave his head a shake and rolled onto his other side, vaguely upset in the stomach from all the rich food she was feeding him. Or maybe it was the wallpaper, he thought, glancing up from the pale cream page to the hideous yellow walls. He wasn’t in the habit of noticing decoration—didn't often stay in a room that had any, point of fact—but this wallpaper was singularly offensive. The color was bad enough, a dirty yellow shade that reminded him of a dust-storm on the horizon, but the pattern was worse. It seemed to seethe in the lamp-light at the corners of his eyes, making him feel vaguely fever-sick, or maybe morphine-sick.

He turned up the wick again, flipped back to the article he was supposed to be reading. It was interesting, but too full of unfamiliar terms for him to just skim it. He had to mentally parse every sentence in order to squeeze out the meaning. It seemed a Swiss named Lister had proven the existence of tiny creatures called “microorganisms,”—too small to see, but alive and aggressive—which attacked healthy body tissues, causing disease and putrescence. This was some different from the idea of spontaneous generation, which Trace had learned about in seminary. Spontaneous generation taught that maggots and putrescence sprang from the decaying matter itself. He’d always thought that made sense enough, seeing as how God had created the world out of nothing. But the idea of tiny, invisible creatures invading healthy flesh reminded him of ants swarming over a scorpion, or those bloodsuckers swarming the train. Nature tended to repeat the same patterns in different sizes, so maybe God had made microorganisms, too.

A whispering sound drew his gaze up from the page toward the dark eye of the window. The curtains were missing; even the hardware had been wrenched from the plaster. The wallpaper was stripped off in patches, too. Maybe someone had intended to redecorate this room and never got around to it. Trace wondered briefly how long Miss Fairweather had lived in this house and whether she had made any efforts to remodel it. It seemed unlike her to spend time decorating, especially since she did no entertaining. And yet she had the manners of a trained hostess. She was always unfailingly proper, even while insulting him. She didn’t wrap herself in frills and fripperies like the fashionable ladies he saw around St. Louis, but he’d seen her in very fine clothes on a couple of occasions, and even her plain work dresses were better-fitted and finer cloth than those of a shopgirl or farmwife.

She had money, obviously, had probably been born to it. Might even be minor English nobility. No doubt had been raised a proper lady… but that didn’t explain her education, her training in science. Trace had read of some medical schools back east starting to admit ladies, but Miss Fairweather was not much younger than he. Maybe the schools in England were more permissive. Maybe she’d had tutors.

Another scientist who supported the microorganism theory (he read) was a Frenchman named Pasteur. Some years ago he had boiled some meat broth in a glass jar, then bent the neck of the jar. This was supposed to prevent microorganisms in the air from getting into the broth, and it worked fine until Pasteur tilted the jar to let the broth into the neck of it. After that, the broth got rancid, which was supposed to prove that these tiny creatures were carried by air currents.

Appalling thought, really. Trace’s mouth curled in distaste, thinking of what he might be breathing in. As if to underscore the point, a cool gust of air touched the sweat on his arms and chest. He shivered lightly, thinking there must be a storm on the way.

The whispering came again, a faint and yet fleshy sound, like a like a hand dragged along the papered walls. Trace surfaced from his reading-doze and looked up.

Nothing stirred, inside or out. It was a very still night. In fact, he realized, there was no breeze coming in the window.

The room was stifling-hot, but his arms were tingling with gooseflesh, as if a cold breath had blown across his skin. It had been a while, he thought suddenly, since he’d taken the time to meditate. Maybe too long.

He sat up in bed, peering into the dark corners of the room, but there was nothing to see except shadows and the contorted pattern of the wallpaper. It seemed to writhe, like heat-visions on the Great Salt Flats, and most of the movement rippled close near the floor, as if something were crawling down low behind the paper. Something vaguely human-shaped, with long hair hanging over its face. Its shoulder dragged along the wall with a faint rasp and the occasional thump as it knocked past a bit of wainscoting.

“Uh, pardon me?” Trace said.

The crawling figure stopped, hunching in on itself, like a mouse caught on the pantry floor.

“I don’t mean t’interrupt, but could you maybe go do that somewhere else? It’s a mite disturbin.”

The figure resumed creeping as if it hadn’t heard. Trace lay back down with a snort, turned toward the window to find a cooler spot on the mattress, and went back to his article. But now he was aware of the noise he couldn’t shut it out. His ears tracked the slithering all the way down the wall, over the doorway and its trim work—ba-dump, ba-dump—behind the bureau, under the dressing-table, under the window—ba-dump, ba-dump—to the fireplace, where there was a pause just long enough to make him think it had stopped, before it resumed on the other side.

Trace sighed. Round and around all night would drive him crazy. By morning he’d be creeping along with it.

“Alright, you win,” he muttered, rolling off the edge of the bed. He collected his clothes from the chair, put his hat on his head, and took the lamp in his free hand. There was a whole row of bedrooms up and down the hall; surely one of them was unoccupied. “I reckon you were here first.”

1 comment:

AJ Milne said...

Beautiful. Love the sense of heaviness, unease.

...And laughed out loud at "It's a mite disturbin'".