Excerpt: The Beak Doctor

"No one dies of the plague. One simply never wakes."

Weirdfictionreview.com is proud to present an excerpt from Eric Basso’s novella “The Beak Doctor,” featured in The Weird: A Compendium of Strange and Dark Stories. It is also the title work of Basso’s collection of short fiction, The Beak Doctor: Short Fiction 1972 – 1976. “The Beak Doctor” has had a cult following among avant-garde gothic writers since it was first published by the Chicago Review in 1977. In part, “The Beak Doctor” reads like a modern, more Joycean version of  Alfred Kubin’s novel The Other Side (1908)  in that the nameless city is plagued by a strange sleeping sickness. Basso discusses “The Beak Doctor” in an interview also running on Weirdfictionreview.com. Click here for a complete selection of Eric Basso’s books. — The Editors


Before the mask. I must at least go through the motions for as long as the antitoxin can keep me awake. An increase from 0.5ml. of a 2,000 million per ml. vaccine, given as the first dose. My eyelids are get­ting heavy. A little while, and yet a while longer, to follow the tick of the clock (corner-of-the-eye hallucinations: livid specks that seem to jump out of the walls before a glance decomposes them), and I will have begun to dream. A window impossible to distance. Somewhere beyond the grimy panes there was, there is, another room, high above Promontory Wall, where he used to spend his time.

1.0ml. Behind the tree, the window. Fog too thick, at first, to cast even a faint reflection in the clouded glass. There, above the porch roof. Slate tiles toward a rusty gutter with the creak of something that rocks in the lower branches, no guttering water, not a sign of rain, though the air was leaden and damp. He waited, stretched out in his bed with the light off, for her footfall on the stair. He must have been down there, the old man, the antiquarian, leaning back, his cane chair squeaking from across the green of the tabletop the night the landlady died. The canaries had gone to sleep. Then, by degrees, the mist swallows up the image with its shifting forms and hidden noises. It comes back to me.

No one dies of the plague. One simply never wakes. When they first began to nod off in the streets, I took them for dead. The fog had not yet settled like a pall over the city.

1.5ml. I could almost see him then, the Ancient Wanderer, walking out among the sleepers. He had thrown a veil over the dark pools of his eyes and went from one to another with lamp in hand, or as an undulating shadow on a wall of water. The narcolept. Their faces turned up to him. In the empty streets. From the stairs I heard him breathing white smoke under the lampposts, down to the docks where keelboats and schooners were no longer even silhouettes. He walked alone to the end of the jetty. Somewhere behind the last crab shanty there was a noise of splashing water as he threw himself into the bay. Once, he came at night to the theatre. No one had cause to recognize him. There, from the edge of the darkness beyond the footlights, he showed his sad face to the actors. He was sitting alone, marking time by sketching a maze of webs around their bodies the night the old man saw him.

The metabolic process remains more or less normal, or normalizes according to the needs of sleep. As long as in­travenous nourishment is provided, there is no reason at all why the patient cannot live out his allotted span of life in dreams. Glucose. Tubes to drain off the liquid excretions. Growth of hair and fingernails continues long after the last evacuation of feces. Always, whenever too many of them have been gathered in one place, the overpowering stench of sugared urine.

2.0ml. No effect. To keep myself from dozing off, I reset the alarm every five minutes and tried to picture the moon, which no one has seen for weeks. Before the mask, it was a lot easier to get around my office without knocking drug samples and specimen tubes off the cabinet tops. A full moon every night, large and yellow, under clouds swept by wind across the heavens. Something I’d read in a book. In cutting the eyeholes, I hadn’t followed the pattern closely enough. Whenever I ventured out, or if I was called away, I had to be careful of where I walked. A distinct fall-off of light toward the edges. The moon had all but disappeared behind the trees. The silvering that limned the rooftops passed, and I was alone in the streets. They must have come for me before morning. A half moon every night, blood-red, hovers near the horizon. Without stars or light, he waited for her footfall on the stair. He was in his room, stretched out on the mattress. The mattress leaned against the wall, by the window. He had stretched out on the bare springs to keep from turning over. A waning moon each night the map hung under a sheet of glass. Second window. What I can see of the mist from here. The old man is leaving, going down the wooden porch steps. He will not return. He has taken almost everything. By degrees, piece by piece, until nothing remains but the smile in a pool of lunar clouds.

Something more that runs counter to every precept of medicine. Just before the plague of sleep, another name­less disease had taken form. Those who were exposed to the contagion began to dematerialize. They were only half there, as though the accumulating mists had wanted to eat them alive. Since the brain was almost the last organ to deteriorate, the victim was forced to suffer in full con­sciousness not so much the fading away, but the agonizing process of starvation. At first, the skin became a mass of ef­fervescing dust behind which the internal organs gradually came to appear. Once the victim had reached this stage, a normal examination became impossible. The desire to eat remained; but, as the disease took its course, any solid or liquid nourishment placed in the mouth fell through the floor of the buccal cavity to the ground before it could be swallowed. The internal and external musculature remain in working order almost to the end. Temperature seems to play a crucial rôle in determining the degree of dematerial­ization of any given part of the body. The pathology, here, is elemental. The tip of the nose, the ears, the toes, and often the buttocks, being anywhere from a quarter to a full two degrees cooler than the normal bodily temperature, tend to retain their density over a longer period of time than those organs and tissue which are normally concealed by the epidermal layer. One way to retard the illness, then, would be to keep the patient constantly exposed to the cold which, however, would almost certainly result in pneumonia or some other complication. The process of dematerialization is such that, once the cutaneous envelope becomes affected, the glands, the musculature, the lymphatic and circulatory systems, being from one to four degrees warmer, will already be too far gone by the time the skin has begun to effervesce, removing all possibility of an early diagnosis. The ­­incubation period is unknown. One cannot be absolutely certain that the dematerialization is in any way connected to the endless sleep.

2.5ml. Another opening. Then the old man must have known something. Before the mask. Before the mist. To imitate the buzz of the flies. It deflates. Without light, the putrid blot spreads over it, driving them mad. From room to empty room. Old, tumbledown crates. Shreds of crumpled waxpaper. And if I dare to close my eyes. Another street. In a strange part of the city. I was with her, upstairs with the one who died. Before the fog. The flies. What passed for a bed, a night table by the curtained window, the faint ellipse of lamplight thrown up on the wall, bending out along the ceiling’s end. If this was the room. One without a clock. The ticks. It was much easier then, without the eyeholes or the goggles to fog my vision of a moonless night. Without stars. I could see her leaning in the doorway at the top of a long flight of stairs, where the light had begun to seep through. An opening, yes. I went on tiptoe. Late in the afternoon. In the morning. On a moonless night when the noise of the traffic was not so loud. If I closed my eyes, she would be there in the half-light of her room because my office was too far off, though I would have preferred to have her there, like all the others. Someone must have told him about it the night the landlady died. He must have been told. They would have come for me. Before morning. Upstairs, where so little remained of what we knew. All the rooms were empty, except one. The room with a second window on the mist. A bit more of the warbling. One of my patients sang like a nightingale. Other silhouettes. The flies. And all because the rats, as rats are wont to do, were making a bit of noise on their own, sniffing amid the wood shavings for a crumb of cheese the cat had carried away. In my eyes, the steps. One at a time. Like all the others. A soft tread on rubber mats nailed to the wood. On tiptoe in the night. The flies. The fleas. All that remained to be collected was lost to him. He had relinquished any rights he might have had to the landlady. Old jukebox colors tinged with a fading redness in the air. By way of recompense. Be careful, one of the steps has a loose mat. Squeak by squeak. The odor I could smell, always, on my hands. I have to go now. The police will handle everything, I have to go. Just after five. Scratches. Contusions. Where the lamplight glimmered through. We tried it on the bed. She lay in the shadows. The steps, once more. Not that I’m old. I return, step-shadows dwindling over the tips of my shoes. As I neared the top, she was standing with the light behind her, the one who died, and like the poor landlady after her, not even the unkept promises of the old man could bring her back. I told you to phone the police. Are you deaf? Or he has lost his own shadow beyond the last reaches of the mist. He searches the library alone each night for the words to come to him again. To come while I still have time to remember the ticks, not just a tick at a time. Between which, the notable absence of a clock at the bedside. Standing between the bed and the curtained window. Now, if she wanted to sleep. It would have to be the floor. Soon she would be too far gone. Nothing, at the brink of death, but this coarse-grained shroud of dust sinking through the floorboards, down through the stippled ceiling to the last staircase, and into the bowels of the earth. If they told him about it, he must also know the horror of that night. Her skin took color with the cold, but the bed wouldn’t hold her. She sank under my weight through the mattress. Echoes of the wind passing through old piano wire. I found her under the springs, stretched out beneath the hanging wads of dust, in a shadow.