Four Excerpts from an Unpublished Novella
There was a castle in the young Professor’s neighborhood that came to be called Moofat’s Castle, modeled on the Kronborg Castle at Elsinore in Denmark, where Hamlet’s ghost is said to walk the parapets. The Professor lived with his family across Valley Road in a house that once had been the Castle’s servants’ home. It had fourteen foot ceilings on the first and second floor, a grand staircase, twelve-foot oak pocket doors and more. There were several tunnels under the house that were blocked off but were rumored to lead to the Castle.
The family that built the Castle and lived in it only thirty years, sold it to the wealthy Moofats in a vandalized and run-down condition. Prior to the scheduled renovations and before the family moved in, the Professor entered the Castle and found the place infested with do-nothings and vandals busy smashing the contents. There was a grand piano thrown down one of the staircases and Delft tile work torn off the walls and crushed underfoot. Pulled down from the ceiling were chandeliers made of Civil War rifles. On the floor, broken to pieces, he found a blunderbuss of the Revolutionary War carved with the soldier’s name and date.
Jacob Moofat, a wealthy brewer, his wife, Mildred, an inventor, and their two children moved in shortly after renovations were complete. In retirement, while Mildred kept herself busy with charities and teas, Jacob adopted various pastimes to fill the days, including fish-culture, mold growing and microscopy. He had his laboratory in the basement rooms of the Castle.
Their son, Fiemes, born without bones in his legs, lived since childhood in a small cottage at the edge of the woodlot, built to look like a smaller version of the Castle, about a hundred yards from its rear entrance. Family servants brought him meals and took care of his toileting, medical, personal and other needs. He had a little wheeled contraption his father had designed that allowed him to get around well enough. It was battery powered and looked quite a bit like an oversized trike. He looked silly in the thing, the Professor thought, with his useless legs dangling down in front like a pair of stockings.
In summer, when he and Fiemies were home from St. Cuthbert’s Academy and had plenty of free time, the Professor read to his friend for hours every day. There was always something of interest in the Castle’s vast library. Sea tales were a particular favorite. As soon as the Professor had read the last lines of Moby Dick’s Epilog, Fiemies would say, “Start over, start over.”
When winter came, and schooling at St. Cuthbert’s resumed, Jacob and Mildred decamped for the warm breezes of the Yucatan, where he pursued his interest in entomology by collecting iridescent tiger beetles from sandy beaches, while Mildred lay in a beach chair dreaming of things to invent. Fiemies wouldn’t see them until spring.
The Moofat daughter, whose name the Professor never learned, was an invalid, probably a victim of infantile paralysis. The only glimpse he ever had of her was when he was perched on the Castle wall one day eating a tongue sandwich. He happened to be looking at a chimney swift swooping past a third-story window when the curtains suddenly opened and he saw her lying in an iron lung. She must have been about twelve or thirteen. She turned her head toward the sun and struggled for a smile. The poor thing died before she was twenty.
A decade or so later, at university, the Professor was struck by a car while riding his bicycle, an accident that buggered his left leg, tearing away a good bit of calf muscle. Though only half conscious on the way to the hospital, his sense of smell became heightened. The odor rising from his flayed-open muscle was much the same as the scent of flesh and blood in a butcher shop. Thirty-five years later little fissures continued to open up on the scar face and suppurate for months. They scabbed, stank, sloughed and repeated the cycle relentlessly.
In the fall of ’88, the Professor was in Kuching, an administrative capital on the Island of Borneo, known as the “Gateway to Borneo.” It rained there, the locals liked to say, every yesterday, today and tomorrow. Not ordinary rain, either, but of a cast yellow as bile and warm as piss as it struck the skin. If the Professor left his sweaty shoes beside his bed at night, they would be covered in green mold when he got up. He kept a spray bottle of bleach on the bedside table for killing mold wherever he saw it.
Sitting at a table in the Cat’s Town Bar, drinking sambuca and plum juice, with the sounds of rattling knives and screaming Muslims outside, the Professor was reminded of his last visit to Katmandu. He had arrived in the middle of a civil disorder and was confined to his hotel for three days. Aside from policemen beating up Maoists and Maoists beating up policemen, the only other real excitement was being awakened every morning by the diabolical cackle that emanated from the loud-hailers of a mosque, then looking out of the window up to the peaks of Everest and Annapurna, and then down to streets where there was a full raging battle between street dogs and crows over possession of the one-meter high bank of Katmandu garbage.
The Professor said to the bartender, “Listen to that. It sounds like a fantasia written by Górecki as a fourth movement.”
The bartender seemed not to understand. “The Greek? The Spaniard? The painter they called El Greco?”
“No, no. Górecki. The Polish composer they called Henryk Mikolaj Górecki.”
“You want a drink, Professor, sir?”
“Yes, what have you got that’s strong. Very strong. I have a painful procedure to do. You best not look.”
“I give you some arrack. You will like it. Extra strong. We sometimes call it lion’s milk.”
After a decade of buying vrot red wine at outrageous prices in Africa, the Professor was looking for a change. “If you say so, mate.”
The milky-looking drink was bitingly alcoholic and smelled of rotted fruit. “Excellent,” the Professor said. “Give me the whole bottle…. And, bartender, let me ask you a question. Have you heard of the French philosopher, Jean Paul Sartre?”
The bartender shook his head. “I don’t think so, sir.”
“It doesn’t matter. Sartre said, and I think I’m quoting closely, ‘Consciousness is a being, the nature of which is to question its own being, that being implying a being other than itself. Don’t you think this is why a body can stay alive long after consciousness is dead?”
The bartender shrugged, then blew his nose into a bar rag.
“Nevermind, then,” the Professor said, lifting his second arrack, preparing himself for the procedure. After drinking half the bottle, he probed around his never-healing leg wound with a pair of jewelers’ forceps until he felt a sliver of bone. “I got it!” he yelped. The bartender, thinking the Professor was having a heart attack, rushed to him. “There it is,” the Professor said. The bone fragment was about two centimeters long. “A first class relic. I must be careful, though. Don’t want to flood the market. Also I do not want to compete with St. Theresa of Avila who is spread, piecemeal, all over fucking Europe.” His cackling laughter vibrated the bottle of arrack so much, it scuttled an inch or more over the damp tabletop.
“I have never seen a thing like that,” the bartender said, grimacing at the site of the Professor’s seeping wound. The odor of it sickened him. He felt light headed.
“Bit of a mishap at university,” the Professor said. “Hit by a car. They found my calf on the bumper a day and a half later. The wound’s never healed. It’s been producing these relics all along. I keep them in little phials in my medicine cabinet. Some day I’ll build a proper reliquary.”
The bartender shook his head and went to the public telephone.
“Who are you calling?” the Professor asked. “I hope not the Pope.” The cackling again moved the bottle.
“A taxi, sir, for you. It is almost time to close.”
Last dry season, the Professor traveled across the Gulf of Siam to Bangkok. He took the boat taxi up the Chao Praya river to spend time with Egg Surasak, the foremost penis-restorative plastic surgeon in Thailand. As he waited for the famed surgeon in the Café Lyon, the Professor sipped tea and read an article in the Bangkok Post about a recent wave of severings: “While not unique to the kingdom, it has been honed here to its most devastating effect through a heady mixture of routine infidelity, assertive womanhood and a national cuisine that lends itself to a kitchen full of sharp knives,” the writer had written.
When Surasak popped into the Cafe, he said, “Good morning Professor,” in his gentle Asian way.
The Professor replied: “Egg on you, Egg. What will you have?”
“Oh, it’s a warm day, something light. Maybe pad siew and a bubble tea.”
The Professor could sense disappointment in Egg. His social life was somewhat limited because those in his pink-gin drinking circles tired of his endless prattle about pearly penile papules, his favourite topic, Fordyce spots, phimosis and pudendal nerve entrapment, not to mention Peyronie’s disease. They delighted him as horse races delighted others. He could not get enough.
“For awhile we were sewing up a lot of cases,” Egg said. “My colleague, Professor Muangsombot, says that he and I did thirty-three re-attachments only last month, and oodles more were reported around the country. “It had become something of a fad. Thai wives were showing marvelous ingenuity in trying to prevent the offending body part from being reattached. They would boil them, feed them to ducks, flush them down the toilet, bury them and even tie them to balloons and let them float away.” Egg’s advice was: “If you have a mistress, the wives will get mad and cut it any time, so always carry a Thermos to put it in and keep my name and number close to hand.”
“As you know, Doctor Surasak, from our correspondence, I am keen to observe one of your re-attachments.”
“Come along,” Surasak said, “I’m doing one this morning. Normally, three or four. There’s been a lull of late. Either the wives are becoming more tolerant, or the men are fucking one another to save a bit of money.”
The Professor and Dr. Surasak went along to the clinic. Mr. Numthwaite, Surasak’s first patient, was tapped in the usual way with a shunt in the gaping wound. The severed penis lay in a tray of salted ice. Surasak added a stiff quantity of claret and Bristol water into the puncture, but on withdrawing the perforator, instead of lymph, nothing but a thick, ropy gelatinous fluid issued out. Two gallons of it were immediately drawn off and half this amount of claret and Bristol water injected instead. “This,” Surasak told his assistants, you’ll do tomorrow and continue daily until the whole contents should be discharged. I’m afraid that a total discharge will lead to syncope. In any event, Numthwaite will go cockless for the rest of his life.”
Then there was the matter of the autopsy of Mr. Hasiloglu, whose wife had snipped off his penis with a pair of pinking shears and fed it to ducks in the neighbor’s yard. In a guilt-fueled attempt to repair the damage, she first applied twenty leeches to his perineum, then rubbed cold lotions around the stump, along with a prescription of a tartar emetic, calomel and colocynth. So much blood was lost just after the initial severing and for the next few days as his wife tried to nurse him, he died.
Still, when Surasak made his incision, Hasiloglu’s innards suggested the wife may have done him a favor and spared him an agonizing death. There was suppuration of a sizable cyst of the liver communicating with the femoral hernia, gangrene of the gallbladder, extravasation of bile and peritonitis.
“Quite clear this chap would have passed on quite soon anyway,” Surasak said. Taking one of his assistants aside, he whispered an instruction. “Tell his wife she did him a favor. She will be relieved.” To the Professor he said, “I knew Hasiloglu. He had been sniffing his wife’s cunt and beating his meat like it owed him money,” then offered an apology. “So sorry there were no re-attachments to see today, but come with me to the postmortem forum.”
The forum went on for hours, lulling the Professor into a half-sleep as Surasak reported on five cases of amputation of the penis for epithelioma, a sloughing of penis from strangulation by pressure, two cases of violent inflammation caused by constrictions with steel rings and one case of horn on the glans penis supported by a persistent priapism caused by extravasation of blood into the corpora cavernosa.
One midwinter, during his post-graduate years in West Africa, the Professor was in a heavy bee mode. He needed brood. He was on the telephone discussing the matter with the regional dealer in Africanized, killer bees.
“I need some brood. I will pay whatall.”
“Well, Professor, it is winter and I don’t want the bees to get brood chill.”
“They won’t. I will move fast. Can I have them or not?”
“Very well, go and get them. They are on the farm at Wonderboom. You must be careful because the road is middelmannetjie, as we say. Very bad. The ruts are deep, the middle high.”
“Ja, nee. I won’t come in my car, I’ll use the baboon truck.”
“What baboon truck?”
“The one at Medical School we use to fetch ‘boons from Frankenwald.”
“You chaps have ‘boons out there?”
“Yes, we have a quarantine and keep hundreds of them.”
“Every department goes through ‘boons like a dose of salts. My own department probably kills ten or more a week.”
“Why do they kill them?”
“I don’t suppose they mean to, necessarily, but that is how their experiments go. Largely unsuccessful I would say.”
“What do they do with those dead ones?”
“You know that smell in Hillbrow on Thursdays?”
“The Auschwitz one?”
“Yes, the General Hospital has a huge furnace where they burn up their old surgical body parts, old kidneys, amputated arms and feet, dead babies, whatever. So we just send the boons over there to the Gen and they give them an Auschwitz holiday. Jesus, it does stink, too.”
“Do you have to burn them?”
“Well it would be somewhat unseemly to have ten or twenty dustbins full of dead baboons out on the curb. People might complain.”
“Would it be possible to get some arms and legs for me?”
“What the fuck do you want with that? And how many?”
“’Boon arms and legs are good muthi. You tie them to a pole and set them up next to your hives. Keeps them away.”
“All right, I think we can. I’ll ask our chaps. How many do you want?”
“As many as you can fit in your truck.”
“Ok, then they will have to freeze them and when the fridge is full I’ll bring them over.”
“Thanks a stack.”
It must be remembered that in those days the Professor was not yet a “professor,” but a perennial student. His professor then was an anachronously snobbish Free State Israeli, garbed in three piece pinstripes, who affected a knowledge of French and who never got blood on himself.
He ventured into the Professor’s laboratory, who knows why, and inexplicably opened the fridge, which by then had a good forty baboon arms and legs piled on top of each other. He closed the fridge and asked the young experimenters, “Need I even ask who set this lot up?”
Silence prevailed for a moment. “Young man, do you realize how many laws are being broken here?”
“Not really. Many?”
“Get out of here. You’ll be disenrolled by this time tomorrow.”
And that ended the Professor’s academically sanctioned career forever. From that point on, he went his own way.
David Ohle is the author of Motorman, Age of Sinatra and The Pisstown Chaos.