The Anatomist's Dream

BOOK: The Anatomist's Dream
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CLIO GRAY

Myrmidon

Rotterdam House

116 Quayside

Newcastle upon Tyne

NE1 3DY

www.myrmidonbooks.com

Published by Myrmidon 2015

Copyright © Clio Gray 2015

Clio Gray has asserted her right under the Copyright, Designs

and Patents Act 1988 to be identified as the author of this work.

This novel is entirely a work of fiction. The names, characters and incidents portrayed in it are the work of the author's imagination. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, events or localities is entirely coincidental.

A catalogue record for this book is available from the British Library.

ISBN (Hardback) 978-1-910183-20-5

ISBN (Export Paperback) 978-1-910183-21-2

Set in 11.5/14.5pt Sabon by

Falcon Oast Graphic Art Limited,

East Hoathly, East Sussex

Printed in the UK by CPI Group (UK) Ltd, Croydon, CRO 4YY

All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced,

stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted in any form or by any

means, electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording or otherwise,

without the prior written consent of the publishers.

This book is sold subject to the condition that it shall not, by way of

trade or otherwise, be lent, resold, hired out or otherwise circulated

without the publisher's prior consent in any form of binding or cover

other than that in which it is published and without a similar condition

including this condition being imposed on the subsequent purchaser.

1 3 5 7 9 10 8 6 4 2

1

Debut

‘It's a taupe,' announced the doctor, poking at the lump with a scratchy yellow finger, ‘a French tumour they call it, though couldn't rightly tell you why. Most unusual – got a bit of hair growing on it too, see here?'

Several thin strands grew, wet-wisped, from a lump the size and shape of a duck's egg at the bottom of the baby's head.

‘Might kill him,' the doctor carried on with scientific ­stoicism. ‘But probably not, most likely grow a-pace with the rest of him. My goodness though, he does rather resemble the back end of a baboon, don't you think?'

He winked at Frau Kranz, who had never seen a baboon let alone its back end, but understood well enough what he meant.

‘
Schweigen Sie!
' she hissed, ‘be quiet, sir,' and nodded her head at Shminiak, who had slumped into a stupor by the empty fire, bowing his head, wondering how much more brandy it would take to make everything go away. He'd already clapped his hands about his ears to shut out the baby's awful squalling, moaning quietly: ‘For God's sake, make it stop, make it stop, for God's sake . . .'

Frau Kranz, who was the most patient of women, could put it off no longer and chivvied the child up carefully from the ­bassinet and carried him over to the bed, clamping him onto his mother's sweaty breast. Nelke, exhausted as she was, woke abruptly at the application and tried to swat the intruder weakly away. She refused to believe this monstrosity was of her flesh, that she had given birth at all, the pain of labour nothing more than a terrible nightmare, a twilight dream. But it was no dream, not for Nelke, Shminiak, nor the child who was oblivious of the outside world – a world that seemed peaceful on the surface, there in Staßburg as elsewhere, but the jigsaw puzzle of Europe was beginning to crack along its edges, breaking up from within, harried from without, each piece tugging itself away from the other, the Holy Roman Empire snuffed out years before by Napoleon, a shaky German Confederation created to fill the void. There was civil war in Iberia, and every Italian state clawed at the throats of its neighbours, and soon the entire continent would be utterly fragmented, Metternich packing the prison fortress at Spielburg in Bohemia, its stones reverberating with the cries of the spies and subversives he'd locked inside its walls; but no matter how many he crammed in there seemed an inexhaustible supply, and the secret operatives of princes, kings and Junkers were soon running the country up and down as freely and frequently as the tides run up and down the sands of coastlines the world over. Conspiracy and subterfuge would become bywords for those coming years through which that child of Nelke and Shminiak would grow up, and the slump of 1844 a few years later would scuttle ships and rip the Guilds from nape to knee; potato blight and famine would squeeze the stomachs of labourers and peasants across the land; there would be riots in Aachen and Bavaria, Berlin and Saxony; the Silesian silk workers would break their looms and tools; the Slavs and Poles and Magyars rise up against their masters; the railways would crash and the rivers stutter to a stop with the piling up of the dead.

But all that was yet to come and, as Philbert bullied his way out of Nelke's womb, there was no inkling of the terrible and significant part he would play in these events, no thoughts at all thrumming around inside his monstrous head. Later in his life he would meet people who claimed to understand the language of the wind as it whispered through the trees, who saw omens in the entrails pulled from still-warm lambs, interpreted the future by studying the murfles and mottlements that grew upon men's skin. Perhaps if they'd been there at the very start, ­attendant at Philbert's birth, they might have foreseen what would happen, maybe had the nous to stop it before it all kicked off. But only Frau Kranz was there with a screaming mother, a drink-sodden father, and the doctor scratching his yellow ­fingernail on Philbert's taupe.

2

Salting the Meat

Nelke Windberg met Shminiak Bedrobessian in Staßburg, early summer, 1839. It was a holiday, and hot, with boys shinning up greasy poles to get at squawking cocks, couples dancing circles, drunkards bawling, fiddles screeching, men playing ninepins, dogs cleaning up the spillage and puke that fell between the tables set up in the town's square. Nelke was one of those offending bowkers, Shminiak a courteous bystander, slipping an empty piggin bowl beneath her sad debouch. She had ­obviously drunk more than she was used to, although Shminiak was too polite to point it out; it was easy to drink too much in a place like Staßburg, everyone habitually dehydrated, the soft drift of salt from the mines covering everything, from ground to tables, cups and cutlery, hair and hands and clothes. No one buys salt in Staßburg, went the old saying, you just shake from your shirt. It was in the air you breathed, made worse that ­celebration day by the dancers kicking up the dust.

Nelke drank as others did, she ate pigs' trotters, jellied tongue, pickled cabbage and cucumber. It was a festival, and she did no more nor less than was expected, except to meet Shminiak Bedrobessian halfway through the day, when he had seen in her what he
'
d never seen before in any girl, and after he'd cleaned her up he limped her off away from the Wirtshaus, down to the hay meadows by the river, and the next morning they awoke together under the same blanket, deciding there and then that there were worse things they could do than stay together, share shack and rent, with no need to trouble the church with formalities.

He carried on working in the salt mines, hack, hack, hacking away at the salt-bricks with his pickaxe, and she in the flourmills, churning out bread by the ton.

‘Oh my dear Nelke,' Shminiak said, once she agreed to their joining bodies and bed. ‘My sweet cherry, the lips of my soul will always kiss your holy name, as will the longing of my breath.'

Shminiak was Armenian and liked to quote his patriarch, Grigor of Nareg, whose
Lamentations Before God
had been such a help to him throughout the shambolic ways of his life. Nelke replied in kind, at least in those early days.

‘
Stille
,
mein Liebchen
,' she so often replied. ‘Be still, my love, for we are as one.'

So they were, and the happiness this brought Shminiak caused him to shake off his habitual depression and work all the harder and soon was promoted to
Aufseher
, controlling the town's salt exports to Westphalia and beyond. At home, Nelke was proud and quiet as she grew like an orange,
linea
nigra
creeping up from pelvis to bellybutton, stroking the child as it expanded within her skin.

‘
Ach
,
meine kleine kind
,
meine säugenling
,
meine apfelkuchen
,
meine nocke
,
winzig meine nuß
,
meine
eichel
.' Her words of love and blessing were whispered over and over to her unborn child, her precious apple cake. All her thoughts were of motherhood and the startling cravings that came with it: she devoured noodles boiled with pickled peppers, apples dipped in fireplace soot, eggs fried and sprinkled over with sugar and salt. She chewed her mouth black with little pieces of coal, peeled sticks right down their cores until she got to their tender centres, her greed growing with her gravidity, the child within her already adored and
already named. She listened with joy for the uterine souffles and the double pulse, and laughed when Shminiak tickled her belly with his fingers, both counting down the weeks and months as they came.

And then, almost a month before she was due, all went still, and for three days Nelke held her breath and shook with every moment; couldn't bear the thought that her little apple cake had died within her, her body become a coffin she could not escape. She cried out with relief when the pain began suddenly to rage within her as the child manoeuvred itself for early battle, drumming on her pelvis bones as if trying to snap them through, and then came the sweat and the shouts and the awful swearing as she was racked and attacked by the spasms she could not control. The neighbours all came running then, sending the shiny-eyed, petrified Shminiak down to the ale-house where he rocked back and forth in his chair, the brandy coming across to him at regular intervals as he sang his half remembered hymns of protection from Grigor's
Lamentations Before God
:

‘
Cover
with Your Hand
,
O Christ, the roof of my house
,
mark my door with Your Blood
,
cover my bed with
Your Right Hand
.
O Jesu protect my couch from ambush
and defend my soul's soul in its distress
,
place
Your Arm around my heart and that of my beloved 
. . .'

For fourteen hours he sat and rocked and ranted, listening to Nelke's screams ringing down along the cobbled alleyways, the barman keeping the brandy coming, notching up the tally on his slate, wondering if he should really charge such a man at all.

The leather birthing-strap that was placed between Nelke's teeth was worn down to a fragment by the end of it, the bedposts creaking from grind and press as the child punched its way towards its narrow and bony gate. Right through that leather Nelke finally bit when at last came out her burden, foot-first, still kicking, followed by the rest of it, and then the final travail of the large and cumbersome head that had to be tugged out by force, coming out the colour of red carnations as it bawled as hard as Nelke when it eventually emerged, releasing her from her agony, allowing her to subside into unconscious relief. Frau Kranz from next door had taken early charge and pushed away the world, holding the newborn as if it were her own, cleaning up afterbirth and child, getting him ready for Shminiak come staggering home from the inn, poking gently at the bauble-bump that shone beneath the baby's skin, hard as a plum pip and five times as big.

The life that came next for Nelke was not at all as she'd ­imagined it would be. She could barely look at her torturer, let alone give it a name, and cursed every drop of milk squeezed from her sore and ulcerated breasts and the way her legs had gone all wet and white, shiny like soap, rubbed over by Frau Kranz with fish-oil and glycerine, turning her beauty into the pickings of a fishmonger's stall. She couldn't understand where her little apple cake, already lovingly named Elsa, had gone to, nor the cruel blow she had been dealt inasmuch as a monster had been ­delivered in her place.

Back to the flourmills went Nelke, soon as she was able, the changeling left with Frau Kranz next door. She went grind, grind, grinding out her anger, knead, knead, kneading out her despair. Her assiduous work did not go unremarked, and a molinet stick was placed into her hands and up the stairs she went, ascending to the high station of the Confectionery Department, her rage and despair put to good use as she whipped and whisked the chocolate into angel folds soft as butter, light as clouds; churning her sweat and tears into the brandy lacing the truffles, the chantilly that filled the tortes, the sugar that was spun around marzipans and chocolates. She saved her best moments for the
nußbeeren
, going at that mocha mousse like a demon, having a special hatred for the hazelnuts she had to hide within, seeing in the whole confection an exact reflection, not of her not-to-be little Elsa, but the horrid taupe of the alien child that had usurped her, duping them both, ripping their promised happiness into ribbons as a conjuror does his flag; a conjurer who has forgotten his trick halfway through and walks off the stage, leaving the broken pieces behind instead of rolling them back together and reproducing the banner again, as whole and beautiful and unscathed as it had been before.

It was left to Shminiak to name his son and to stroke the brown into which his taupe had sulked after its initial shocking debut in purple and red, to twist the little curl of hair around his finger, kiss the beat of blood that ran through it like a second pulse. He sat for many nights in the chair by the fire with the child held close to his heart, while Nelke lay upon the bed, pale and sharp as ghost-thistle, lips opening and closing as she slept her angry sleep.

‘My little Philbert,' he whispered at such moments. ‘My tiny son. There is love enough in me for both of us, only hush now, and do not wake your mamma,' and then he stroked his small son, his head, his taupe, trying to stroke away the bad times he knew must come.

BOOK: The Anatomist's Dream
6.65Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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