The Pier

Jake hadn’t been to the pier in ages. It still smelled of fish and of rot. Maybe the wood was a little more decayed than it had been. Jake was always so aware of the wood. It was comforting, in the abstract — the fact of it. It had once been alive, and that energy remained, seeped out of it into his being. Yet as it aged, that life continued to ebb. And it had not aged with dignity. The neglect poured through the cracks and splinters and the squishy bits of pylon, filled with bacteria Jake could hardly stand to imagine. It was such a balance for Jake — the uncleanliness of the place, the sense of death, which on a bad day sat with him like a bad roommate. It was that or the softness, the nature of the place, reassuring him that he was still alive, that the world remained in some small corners real, for all the manufacture imposed upon it. Stop paying attention, and eventually everything returns to its intended state. There’s only so long we can impose our control on the world, on any one thing. For all our vanity, our attempt at codification, nothing can be permanent. It’s that struggle against the inevitable — that’s where we get all our stress. It’s the same stress you get from carrying a lie with you, never knowing when you’ll have to compound it, expand your effort just to maintain your stasis, your artificial construct.

The truth tends to be disgusting on one level or another. On the days when Jake could stand the smell of it, or when the stifling lie of modernity clogged his head — that’s when he came here.

Jake blinked at the screen on his Blackberry, finally processing the text of the email he was reading. How long had he been staring at it? How had the phone climbed out of his pocket and into his hand? Jake tensed his arm as if to pitch the phone off the pier, skip it across the surface of the bay. A shudder flowed across his chest, and with some method Jake slipped the phone into his shoulder bag, zipping the compartment lest the phone claw its way out again.

Mudman, Part Two

– 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.”
     “Summon?”
     “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.

Entomologically yours,

James

Mudman, Part One

– January 06, 1940 –

Dearest Mary —

     I have not heard from you in weeks, now. Have my last three letters not found their mark? Should we consider these as further additions to the transcontinental gorilla-courier tax?
     I jest. I realize how busy you are; do not overly trouble yourself on my mere account. I only hope that it is you and not some lower primate who is the eventual target of my affection. I have enough nightmares as it is.
     Is Janet faring any more well? I hope this silence does not have the sinister overtone I might be persuaded to imagine.
     If you have been following me, you should know of the progress I have been making in my studies. It is not the easiest task to track down those vases. For such a small region as Sumeria, you would think that there would be only so many places to bury pottery. Oh, these crafty ancients. I am beginning to suspect that they left those few shards in plain sight merely to bedevil me. Regardless, Scott and I have made tremendous use of what fragments have been allowed us. I am convinced that this is proof that I have been right all along about the linguistic roots so often you hear me describe. Gilgamesh, nothing.
     If this Utu-Etanaa fellow is as trustworthy as he sounds, we have barely even begun our search! Goodness knows what lost knowledge could be uncovered if we could merely break from this Mesopotamian mire. But enough of my grousing; you know the drill more well than even I, it would be safe to assume. There is no reason to blame the nearsighted for their occlusion.
     This reminds me of an odd call I received the other day. As I was scrambling to prepare for the Meswick lecture, my phone began to rattle with the fury of a serpent. Although I did not initially intend to answer, as my time was quite limited, its peal did not abate and I was eventually forced to lift the receiver. Annoyance, more than any other sentiment, guided my hand.
     I was unsure what to make of the result of this decision, and I was already halfway gone when it came through. It was only earlier today that the incident returned to my attention, when I received a telegram — oh, but wait. First, the phone.
     I picked up the phone in a haste, as mentioned. I intended merely to report my situation and to escape as quickly as possible, but the opportunity did not come. The moment the cup was to my ear, a booming voice resounded forth:
     “Professor Astrid.” It was more a proclamation than a question.
     “Yes?” I replied. My body suddenly felt like a wooden doll, and I could do little but respond. In retrospect, I feel somewhat silly for how easily I was surprised — but again, I had many things on my mind.
     “My name is Doctor Stephan Haustus.” The voice continued with a flat, deliberate, oddly uninflected tone. Yes, he used the prefix “Doctor” in reference to himself. At the time, however, it did not nearly seem as inappropriate as it might sound on paper. “I work at the Bloomingdale asylum, and have become familiar with your work through a colleague of mine. We are in need of some assistance.”
     I was unsure how to respond. I stood silently for a moment, before pulling myself out of my frozen stupor. “Assistance? Of what nature?”
     “It would be best to discuss in person. I will be in town next week; perhaps we could speak in more detail then?”
     Although I should have been more bothered, the sheer degree of his audacity had its effect on me. I replied that yes, I will be around for at least the next month. The Doctor said that he would contact me later, with more information — and then came what, at the time, seemed the most unnerving part of the entire strange conversation: he wished me luck with the lecture, before leaving his farewell and hanging up.
     For a moment, I stood with the receiver frozen to my ear. Of course I see now that there are many ways Doctor Haustus could have heard of this lecture. It is even possible that knowledge of my presentation was responsible for this colleague of Haustus to have known to mention me at all. It certainly is amusing how the world works, at times.
     Further, the Doctor’s tone might be explained in the same way — having unexpectedly caught me before the lecture, he felt in a hurry to make his business known as directly and in as short a time as possible. Although he was certainly rude, he made his point.
     After having thought this through. I am now quite tempted to be amused by the whole business. As I said, I received a telegram earlier today. As with the phone call (and indeed as with telegrams in general) it was short and pointed — as well as flat, yellow, and flexible. It simply read as follows:

     IN TOWN THURSDAY EIGHT AM STOP
     PLEASE MEET RAMBURY MUSEUM AT NOON
     OR SOON THEREAFTER STOP
     DOCTOR STEPHAN HAUSTUS

     I must say that it is lucky I have nothing scheduled for Thursday… Or perhaps I am not as fortunate as I think?
     Oh, now I am being facetious. It will doubtfully do great harm to meet with the gentleman. Beyond this, I am curious about the whole mess. As finely as I sift my imagination, I can seem to come up with little reason outside the fanciful why a dusty old linguist such as I would have much to do with a psychiatrist from — come to think of it, where is Bloomingdale asylum? It sounds slightly familiar, but that could well just be my imagination, continuing on its rounds now that I have set it free for other tasks. Perhaps he is working on some new theory of language?
     Time draws short, and yet I draw on — which reminds me: I saw one of your paintings in the gallery here, which I had never noticed in the past. It was a small piece, placed uncomfortably between a Degas sketch and some awful geometric disaster, in a lonely corner of the East wing. A boy was weeping over a pigeon which he had evidentially just shot with some kind of a pellet gun. It might just have been me, as I admit I was behind in my sleep when I came across the piece, but the pigeon seemed to have an expression I could only characterize as demonic. I am tempted to believe this is intentional, seeing the source of the painting, but I fear doing so might give me no end of grief — so I will maintain until otherwise notified that I am merely in need of psychiatric help.
     Oh, what a coincidence! Now I surely must see the good Doctor. Why, this was your plan all along — was it not?
     I pray that you find the time to respond. If not, I fear I will be forced to bore you with such lavish emotional inanity as only I can produce. You have been forewarned. I hope everything is well.

Yours in captivation,

James

lah di doo di dah…

Not a good day, no! Not a good day.
If I had my own to build, I’d not do it this way.
The classes and the asses and the letters they use
The books depend on cashes and my tuition, too.
Oh, nothing wants to work today. Nothing wants to run.
If life were naught but sleep, oh my, it might be more fun…