Read Orpheus and the Pearl & Nevermore Online

Authors: Kim Paffenroth

Tags: #Horror, #Short Stories, #Thriller, #+IPAD, #+UNCHECKED, #+AA

Orpheus and the Pearl & Nevermore (4 page)

As in their previous conversation, Dr.
Wallston’s explanation had come closer to putting his wife’s
condition into normal, understandable human categories of thought
and analysis, but it was still far wide, to say the least. “‘Some
physical qualities,’ doctor? I dare say most of us consider
breathing a little more than ‘incidental’ to life, wouldn’t you? I
don’t know how to comprehend or deal with what you are presenting
to me.”


I know, doctor, I know,
and I apologize again. But there is nothing I can do at this point.
My wife is now what she is, and I hope you will still strive to
treat her.”

Catherine pursed her lips. “You know I will.
It is my duty and, I hope you realize, an all-consuming passion to
which I have devoted my life.”


Yes, and I hope you know
how grateful I am.”

She paused, then pursued her investigation
to understand, as calmly and clinically as she could.
“Circulation?”

He shook his head. “No. None.”


If there’s no
circulation, how do the chemicals get through her
system?”


Partly, the chemicals’
effects are carried along the nerves, the way pain or any other
information is carried through the nervous system. Also, it is why
she has to soak for such a long time, to let the chemicals
penetrate the tissues adequately. That’s another reason the
chemicals are so dangerous to handle: the molecules are so rarefied
they penetrate most anything.”

Catherine felt her stomach briefly convulse.
She did her best to keep down the bile and hide any sign of her
discomfort. A walking corpse was unnerving enough, but the idea
that the poor woman was pickled daily was somehow much more
nauseating. After a brief pause, she asked, “Body temperature?”


Exactly equal to her
surrounding environment. We have had to keep the house quite warm
in the winter months, lest the cool temperature inhibit her
functions, the way it would any cold-blooded animal. I am very much
looking forward to the spring and summer to alleviate this. She was
always so vibrant and lively in the summer months.”


Digestion?” She
remembered thinking how perfectly shaped Mrs. Wallston’s body still
was, even in her unnatural state. Other than the pallor, she looked
like the beautiful, well-fed, pampered young woman that she had
been in life.


Oh, my,
yes. That is another of her urges I don’t fully understand.
Victoria is consumed with an overwhelming hunger, and for the
most
robust
fare.
Since she doesn’t metabolize like we do, I knew her needs would not
be nearly as much as a grown adult, but I had anticipated that she
would need a small amount of nutrition in order to sustain her
bodily motion and to repair damaged tissue, so I had thought to
feed her simple foods, as you would a small child. Cooked
vegetables and breads and cereals. These meals caused some of the
first violent outbursts from her, and since then she has demanded
nothing but barely-cooked steaks and room temperature
scotch.”


Scotch? Is that a wise
addition? What are its effects on her?”


None. Without
circulation, it never reaches her brain, or liver, so there’s no
danger of any of the usual damage from alcohol. There are not even
any signs of intoxication. She says she just likes the taste, but I
suspect it’s more recalcitrance, as though she enjoys the sheer
naughtiness of drinking something so unladylike, as strange as that
may seem.” Catherine didn’t think this sounded the least bit
strange, unlike everything else she had heard. “It’s the steak
that’s the real problem. We try to keep the quantities as small as
possible, but the nearly raw meat is hard for her to digest, since
she lacks all bodily fluids, such as stomach acids. We have partly
solved this with gullet stones.”

This time Catherine couldn’t keep the
retching down to the pit of her stomach, and she audibly gagged.
Again, it was one thing to have to get over the unnaturalness or
hideousness of the situation. But the indignities to which the poor
woman was constantly subjected made her gag instinctively and
sympathetically. “Gullet stones?”

Dr. Wallston had lapsed into the enjoyment
of clinical details and analysis that often make doctors go on
about things that should demand respect or tact, and not
fascination or excitement. “Yes, as in birds. Surely you know…”

Catherine could not help her glare, nor her
rising tone. “I know what gullet stones are, Dr. Wallston! I’m not
some neophyte who chats with people on the couch, who practices the
‘talking cure,’ because I couldn’t master anatomy or biology! I was
expressing surprise that you fed your wife rocks, for God’s sake!
It’s as though you’ve turned her into some lower order of creature
so she could continue her savage, bestial feasts. And all of this
brought on by her being made into some unnatural monstrosity,
through no choice of her own, I might add.” She paused and calmed
slightly. “I’m sorry, I’m not judging you. It’s just some of the
details are particularly horrible and difficult to accept. I will
do my best to look at them dispassionately and help her.”

He hung his head. “Again, I know. You have
to understand, once she was revived, there was nothing I could do
but think of ways to continue her existence. I couldn’t very well
just stop administering the chemicals and let her die again. It
would be like murder. And I couldn’t stand to lose her again.”

They both heard the clank of Mrs. Wallston
opening the hatch. Dr. Wallston went to stand next to the door
through which she would next pass. It opened, and she stepped into
the hall. “Victoria,” Dr. Wallston said, meekly. “I told you
someone would be arriving to help with your treatment. This is Dr.
MacGuire. She comes highly recommended.”

Mrs. Wallston was wearing a long white
dress. It billowed out hugely from her small frame, both in the
skirts and in the gauzy sleeves. Her hair was neatly put up. In
life it surely would’ve accented her fine features and fair
complexion with an enormous shock of shining, glowing yellow, but
in death everything was nearly the same exhausted shade, like an
overexposed photograph in which one can barely make out the details
or contours. And her eyes. They had clearly been a stunning pale
blue, but without moisture they could neither glisten, nor shine,
nor flash, so they were as dull as if they were made of unglazed
porcelain. They had the same fair hue and matte finish as a robin’s
egg. Catherine could not stop gazing into them, their soulless
beauty was so mesmerizing.

Mrs. Wallston tilted her head down and
cocked an eyebrow. There was the same growl as Catherine had heard
the previous night, before the laryngeal resonance resolved itself
into human speech. “Recommended, Percy? Recommended for what, pray
tell? With a name like that, and young as she is, I can’t imagine
it’s for anything other than a maid, and I don’t need a maid, as
you well know.” Mrs. Wallston smiled, but with gums the color of
lard and no joy behind the expression, it was not very becoming.
“Although decked out like that, do you have something else in mind?
Stable boy? Perhaps you’re taking up falconry or jousting,
Percy?”

Catherine knew she had instantly flushed way
past crimson at the insults, but there was no avoiding it. Dr.
Wallston tried to overlook his wife’s monstrous rudeness. “I need
the help of another doctor, Victoria.”


And you couldn’t bear to
have one of your male colleagues see what you’ve done to me, Percy?
Couldn’t bear to have them see my freakish body, or my ruined mind?
And what? I’m supposed to bare my soul to this tarted-up bit of
fluff?”

It seemed to Catherine that she felt Mrs.
Wallston slam into her before she saw her move or heard her shriek.
But she must’ve seen her, for she had instinctively raised her
right arm to protect herself. The nails of Mrs. Wallston’s right
hand raked Catherine’s cheek, as her other arm grabbed Catherine’s,
and those hideously beautiful eyes, narrowed now in rage, lunged
toward her. Catherine barely kept from falling as Mrs. Wallston,
oblivious to either decency or pain, clamped her jaws down on the
forearm Catherine had raised in defense. Her teeth were no danger
through the leather, but Catherine wondered at the force of her
bite; it seemed much more powerful than what the human jaw muscles
should be able to exert. Dr. Wallston had grabbed his wife from
behind and was shouting for her to stop, but for several seconds
all three of them were struggling, before he got her off and put
himself between the two women. He had a hold of his wife’s shoulder
as he looked to Catherine. “You’re hurt. Are you all right?”

Catherine could only nod,
tasting the blood as it trickled down to her mouth from the four
gashes on her cheek. She was panting for breath after the
unexpected assault, and she could see that Mrs. Wallston stood
impassively, not breathing at all, and with a
grotesque
attempt at a smile curling
her lips. Dr. Wallston still tried to take control of the
situation. “Victoria, will you please stop?! This is
serious.”

Mrs. Wallston wrenched her
shoulder free of his grip and took a step back. “What’s serious,
Percy, is how hungry I am. The same gnawing hunger you’ve condemned
me to every minute of this purgatory. With all your foolishness
about bringing an Irish nurse-maid into the house, at least I can
count on long-suffering Romwald to fix a decent steak.” She
shrugged. “Have your esteemed colleague join us, if you must.” She
fixed her hellish gaze again on Catherine. “I don’t care about your
cold comfort or pity,
doctor
,
so
long as I get some steak and scotch that are both warm. I feel a
little chilly.”

 

Catherine had removed her Medieval garb and
stanched the bleeding of her cheek, but foregone a bandage. The
deepest gash, from Mrs. Wallston’s middle finger, might leave a
scar, but the other three were barely noticeable even now.

Mrs. Wallston was at the far end of the table, the
sunlight from the window behind her throwing her front into shadow.
Dr. Wallston was at the middle of the table and rose when Catherine
entered. The seat closest to the door was empty, and Romwald
appeared from the door to the kitchen and pulled it out for her. In
front of her and Dr. Wallston were bowls of a potato and onion
soup. As discreetly as possible, so as not to incite another
incident, Catherine glanced at Mrs. Wallston’s plate and saw four
paper thin slices of steak. Even from this distance across the
table, the shiny redness of both the meat itself and the blood that
pooled on the plate were vivid and nauseating to Catherine. Next to
the bloody plate was a water tumbler of scotch, the amber liquid
swirling with the oily currents of strong liquor.

Mrs. Wallston fell to her carnivorous repast
with gusto, while Catherine and Dr. Wallston sipped more daintily
at their soup. Mrs. Wallston made little attempt at conforming to
typical table manners, smacking as she chewed and slurping the
scotch. Catherine could swear she heard the clacking of the rocks
inside the dead woman, and once again she had to exert herself to
keep her stomach from heaving. When Mrs. Wallston belched loudly,
they ignored it, but the second time Dr. Wallston tried to
intervene, however mildly. “Victoria, please, we have a guest.”

Mrs. Wallston looked up from her plate for
the first time. Now her lips were obscenely painted a glistening
crimson from the bleeding meat. She took up the scotch for a long
gulp, which at least had the benefit of mostly clearing the blood
from around her mouth. “What, Percy?” Mrs. Wallston sneered. “She’s
Irish, for God’s sake. You know how they are. I’m sure she’s heard
and seen worse around the dinner table, haven’t you, missy? Your
dear old mum probably had quite a brood running about, since you
all breed like vermin. And doubtless father was always in his cups,
hmm? Pshaw. My dainty little burp shouldn’t faze her a bit.”

Catherine looked up and dabbed her mouth
with her napkin. The woman’s snipes about her nationality were much
more painful than probably even Mrs. Wallston could have guessed.
Catherine’s grandparents had given up their religion and changed
the first letters of their last name when they came to this
country, to try to pass as Scots and Protestants and give their
children a chance at a better life. When Catherine had learned that
her name was the English or American version of her grandmother’s
name, Cathleen, it had hardly seemed to her that the name was
honoring the family, but just another badge advertising their
shame, like the all-too-conspicuous mane that she had to carry with
her everywhere. And to what had all these various sacrifices and
subterfuges amounted? For Catherine, a head full of knowledge and
skills she wasn’t allowed to use, years of abuse and scorn from
men, and now even this unnatural hag, this thing that shouldn’t
even exist, could cruelly taunt her with impunity and a perverted
glee. It was all she could do to keep from bolting from the room.
But as ashamed as she was, years of practice and emotional calluses
kept her nailed to her chair with her face completely
expressionless.

Dr. Wallston put his hands on the table.
“Victoria, please! She’s right there! And she’s come to help!
Please! I can’t do this alone anymore.” His voice was cracking. He
clearly hadn’t slept well in months, and he was at his wits’ end
now with the infernal situation he had himself created.

Mrs. Wallston clearly reveled in her ability
to shock and hurt everyone around her. “Oh, poor Percy, embarrassed
that your little Irish tramp is more ladylike than your wife? I’m
sure she’s a good deal warmer, too, but what difference is that to
me? I’ll tear her throat out with my teeth as soon as you’re out of
the room, dear, and then she’ll get right down to room temperature,
I’ll warrant.”

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