– January 12, 1940 –
Mary, my dear —
I have had the most extraordinary afternoon. I hardly have a solid notion of where to start, but if the aphorisms hold any truth then perhaps the beginning is the best choice.
Certainly you recall the uncommon business I mentioned earlier, with the brusque Dr. Stephen Haustus and his mysterious ways. I met with the fellow today.
As I write this, night is leaking into the early morning. Nevertheless, I feel more compelled to organize my thoughts than to sleep this day. I will ask Scott to cancel my classes for the approaching noontime, although I fear I will be unable to immediately explain to either him or to my students. (I am certain all involved will be thoroughly devastated at the news.)
Following the Doctor’s instructions, I called for a taxi somewhere close after eleven this morning. It appears that my watch has stopped, but while I am unaware of the precise time, it was undoubtedly somewhere in the immediate range of mid-day that I wound myself to the museum.
I had been idly worrying about how to locate the Doctor once I arrived, as neither his call nor his wire were entirely clear. (I am of course generous in this statement.) Furthermore, it had been so long since I had visited the museum that my memory of its layout was clouded. Walking into the lobby, I had just made up my mind to seek the cuneiform exhibit — perhaps for my own amusement more than the sake of logic — when I was greeted with a familiar thunderclap of a voice.
“Professor Astrid.” The voice once more stated. This time, however, there was more colour in its inflection.
Crossing the room toward me, from between a mock sarcophagus and what appeared to be a grossly oversized fern, was a large, shall we say plenitudinous, man. His face was grizzled with a mutton-chopped swath of nearly black hair, and unexpectedly stretched with a thin smile. There was no vest to be found under his jacket, which seemed to leave the picture incomplete — I would have envisioned a watch chain stretching from the upper pocket — but his heavy cane made up for the oversight.
“You are Doctor Haustus?” As usual, I have a talent for voicing the obvious.
By now the Doctor’s figure was close enough that I could make out a heavy glare — a cast that was removed nearly the moment my eyes met his. I must say that this initial look troubled me in some obscure manner — but my uneasiness was easily subsumed once we began our conversation.
“Stephen Haustus, at your service.” His head gave a slight forward bob. “I should apologize for the suddenness with which I chose to summon you.”
“Beckon, if you prefer. Convoke. Language is more your area than mine. Come, let us remove ourselves from this tourist trap. I have not eaten in hours.”
“I confess that I am a bit confused.”
“Only a bit?” I would not have guessed only minutes earlier that the Doctor was capable of laughter. “We shall have to work on that, shan’t we? But let’s not speak of such things for the moment. You surely know this area more well than I; where might we find a perfect duck?”
It appears that I was right in my earlier suspicion; this Haustus fellow is cagey, but his overall demeanour has quite taken me by surprise. The two of us carved a collective path to the small restaurant a block and a corner away. You must know the name; it’s the one with the weathered clapboards on the inside, and the queer picture of a cat hanging inside the entryway. It still has oil lamps along the walls instead of electric bulbs, and always seems a bit dim inside.
The Doctor seemed indifferent to the eccentricities of the establishment, and barged through the paneled door ahead of me.
We were shown to a table obscured on two respective sides by weathered red brick and a dark, lacquered oak divider. While Haustus took a sturdy chair opposite, I was constrained to slide into a booth seat along this partial wall. Orders were barked to the waitress; the Doctor got his duck, while — having already eaten an adequate breakfast — I passed with an uncomfortably bitter green salad.
In terms of discussion, there was little of repeatable note until the table was put bereft of any measure of edible fare — yet as we ate, I on more than one occasion became conscious of the Doctor’s scrutiny. As his mandibles worked over their meal, Haustus frequently leaned back in his chair, allowing his eyes to do a similar job upon my form. For my part, I did my best to ignore the gaze. I suppose the man was trying as well to see what he could make of me as I, him. From the unusual nature of what he had to say, I can now understand his caution.
“How would you judge yourself as a linguist?” Having become lost in my thoughts over the course of the meal, Haustus’ voice gave me an even greater start than usual.
I was flustered, but I managed a reply. “I have as much to learn as anyone, but I believe I have had at least some degree of success in my studies.” I saw that he was looking for more of an answer than this. “I imagine if you have asked me here then you are familiar with my work. Most recently I have been searching for early traces of the language to develop in ancient Sumer. Although I have yet to receive a wealth of support for my findings, some samples have been brought to my attention which suggest that far from being the first written language, the Sumerian dialect is devolved from some more primary, more sophisticated form.”
“I understand that you might be considered something of a linguo-cryptographer.”
“That might not be as inaccurate a description as many.” I had not thought of myself in such terms, but from the way he phrased it I almost felt like a professional. “Most of the languages I have learned, I have done so with little outside influence.”
Since my mouth was already in motion, I decided to editorialize. “Language theory tends to bore me; there is no way to truly grasp the essence of a thing with the lack of context that comes in an analytic handbag. But yes,” I admitted, “I do have something of a knack for decoding languages that others might find inaccessible.”
Haustus had by now pulled the corners of his mouth into a determined scowl, causing his lower lip to protrude and to fold slightly outward. The Doctor leaned further into his chair and stared through furrowed brow into a distant land above my left ear.
“A man has come to me,” he finally offered, arms folded across his stomach, his eyes maintaining their unfocused glaze. His tone acquired a hitherto-unseen candid quality, although I could swear that it retained a cannily rehearsed type of extemporaneousness. “A patient, if you will. He has recently come down with an unconventional disease of the mind, and several months ago his family saw best to place him in the care of my institution.”
“Is it serious?” A useless question, but I felt obligated to say something.
“A yes and a no,” he shrugged. “One rarely has any clear answers in this field. If you ask whether he is able to go about his business without aid, then yes, to some degree. However, he has become so violent under our custody that he must remain sedated at all times.”
“You say that his disease is a rare one? What is it that’s wrong with this man?” I was becoming curious by now, despite the continued unclarity of Haustus’ intent in this conversation.
“This is where your patience leads.” The Doctor chuckled lightly. “It seems the patient has become lost in his own world. This is a standard reaction, of course, in such modern times as these. Stress will often cause a person to retreat inward, and to make up his own rules; his own universe.”
Haustus ceased his investigation of the surrounding atmosphere and returned his attention to my face, before continuing. “What is unique about this case is the way my patient has chosen to express himself. He has begun to develop an alternate language, undoubtedly entirely of his own creation. Once more, this alone is not unheard-of. What is highly unusual is the complexity and the consistent nature of his language — and a language indeed it appears, albeit none known to any other man I have contacted. These are not merely insane ravings. When the man is sober, he appears to be entirely lucid. It is merely that no one is able to understand his words. I believe that this could be a source for some of his rage.”
Although his story was an engaging one, a certain dissatisfaction had begun to sprout in the center of my mind. “I believe I am coming to understand why you contacted me, and I see how this man might make an interesting study…” I tried to find the most careful words I could immediately gather.
“But ‘why you,’ you ask?”
“Essentially, yes. Surely there must be someone even on staff who can work out some form of communication with the man — if this is what you wish to do. Nearly any patient person should be able to find some way into his head if he is as orderly and consistent as you say.”
“If this were any normal man, I would agree. But I am sure you must sense that there is something greater about this situation than what you describe.”
At this point, the waitress returned to extract our plates. Haustus fell silent until she had left. “You underestimate the complexity of the language. My staff and I have found it entirely impenetrable. Furthermore, his violent tendencies make it difficult to establish any sort of close relationship. Without an exchange, there is no communication.”
I was not sure how much I liked the sound of this, but I allowed him to continue. “Through my studies I feel confident that this man can be cured. If we were able to speak with him, I am certain we could devise a proper treatment for his ailment. Time, however, is not on our side.” Haustus now began to lean forward, pressing his hardened fingers into the table. “The patient is growing more ill by the day, and we fear he has only a short time left to live. As I said, his condition is a rare and baffling one. Even if we are not successful, it would be of incalculable value to science for us to document this sickness in as great a detail as we are able, while we have the chance.”
My expression must have belied my underlying dissatisfaction. Despite all that the Doctor had offered, something still was not sitting right with me.
“The patient is from a very well-respected family. Beyond what I have said, there is a strong… compulsion upon our facility to go to whatever extreme might be necessary, rather than let the story become a public matter.”
Now it all made sense to me. “If this man is as violent as you say, and if he is useless when sedated, then how would you expect even I to be of aid? You must realize that this is not my area of expertise. I have no prior experience of this type of a situation.”
“Nor does anyone else!” The Doctor’s hands became airbourne. “This is a learning experience of a like you will never see again. Of course…” His eyes shone fiercely “… you will be well-reimbursed for your contributions.”
The conversation continued for another hour or more, and despite all of the reservations you would expect, I ultimately agreed. Doctor Haustus said that he would contact me in the coming weeks with more information. I explained to Haustus what large degree of alteration would be in order for my gossamer web of plans, such as to allow for an unexpected project of this magnitude, and have been allowed time to reschedule all of my lectures and meetings. I am simply not able to leave my students in the middle of a semester, but (with providence) the upcoming break should be more than ample time for whatever adventures might be in store.
Heavens — it is already past dawn! I must get my rest if I intend to be able to do anything today. I apologize for the abruptness of my leave, but now that my story is completed I feel unable to keep my eyes open for another moment. Perhaps this sketch of a dragonfly is enough of a payment? If it proves inadequate, I will be pleased to exchange it for another when you return. Both weird and noble, unsettling and beautiful — I am certain the two of you will get along handsomely.