Hives

The room, of robust acrid air, with its many suffocating bouquets and well wishes, houses one. There is a door fastened with a shrill murmur that nests like a razor, intimately in the ear. A who-dares-now-enter hangs, menacing, in the dim of its sill. Would you?

Much had been said, and often, of the affair in One-Eleven Fremur street. Tall tales told, twisted. Cold imaginings casting shadows far beyond the reaches of knowledge. The folk drew scarves and raised collars against the darkly, against the unknown. Some, few, knew. They knew of a beyond farther still, where a truth, untouched, unrefined and unadorned smouldered patiently, crimson, there, in the dark and fog. These sullied few, unwell with the burden, behaved oddly. A place of once naive safety, reserved and intimate in their being, was now re-purposed to house this maddening knowledge; everywhere they went, they carried around the weight of its visceral heat. And they rocked, forth and back, these marred few, these lost souls, forth and back, to the folk tales told in the streets and halls of town. Forth and back, they rocked, as they clinged to these tall tales for safety against the actual truth of the matter. For the room, there, housed one.

A doctor, seemingly unsummoned, had to the small village of Flowerswidth come. Inquiring none. Sombre and stern, in his greatcoat and ways, he did not please as he prowled. The townsfolk had awakened ajar after a night of restless sleep. Watching the conspicuous stranger who trespassed his way through their winding streets, they knew why the troubled sleep. Many a brow furrowed, an eye squinted, concealed behind curtains and courteous greetings. The hair under the doctor’s nose concealed his grave mumbled response, if indeed one had been uttered. Most of his inquiring glances at the townsfolk, resulted in but a nod, briefly preceded by a glance that came to rest just short of his eyes. And, so, briefcase in hand, he crossed the width of town.

The doctor’s heels came to a sharp halt in front of Eleven-One. His forlorn sigh, noticed by none. He turned to face the desolate abode. The letter had contained but one scribbled word. Hives. Nothing more. Urticaria, he thought questioning. Or, perhaps, hoping? No, he thought, Urticaria. A transient condition of the skin, usually caused by an allergic reaction, characterized by pale or reddened irregular, elevated patches and severe itching; hives. Scientifically, he was a courageous man. Although, truth be told, it wasn’t science that had jostled him out of shallow slumbers, out of his home, into the darkness of night and forth until Flowerswidth. Until Eleven-One. Painstakingly scribbled on a shrivelled shred of newsprint, it was the word “Hives” that had.

His head swivelled on its axis. Down the street, the eyes of a few were on him. And could he see rocking? Yes, there, beyond the store, in the alley between two homes. The doctor’s eyes started to water and sting. Urticaria, he mused. Urticaria too strayed clear of Eleven-one, farther still than beyond, rocking back and forth. Forth or back? Forth, he mumbled to himself between clenched teeth of resolve, and walked straight into the affair of One-eleven Fremur Street.

None recalled the fate of the doctor, none but the widow Ruth. And it was she who now recounted the truth, a soft tremor in her voice, to the few who had not known better than to insist. And they listened now, leaning forth to better hear her every whispered word.

Hives, the doctor said.

Hives? The few exchanged glances amongst themselves.

Hives, she whispered back with a severe nod and a swallow. Ruth had seen the doctor, dazed, wandering through the streets of town on the very same evening of his much discussed arrival. She had seen the doctor mumbling as he shuffled hurriedly through the back roads of town. went. His great moustache quivering, his eyes bulging under knitted brows. He had already passed Ruth in his daze, when the word had slithered through his lips.

Hives.

The few leaned closer still. And what else? Speak!

Hives?, she had whispered, chilled by the obscure veil the doctor had draped around the word. The doctor had seen her then and had begun striding towards her, his eyes wild, his moustache unkempt. Noticing this, Ruth had flinched and swallowed. Stooping low to his confidant’s ear, he had said quite calmly and matter of fact, the room in Eleven-one, at the end of Fremur Street, the room… houses one. The doctor had taken a step back, as though in fear of the truth that now rested in Ruth’s ear. He had raised a hand to his mouth, a slow gesture full of remorse. Only then had Ruth noticed the many swollen lumps on the skin of his one bare hand.

A shiver travelled her few listeners. As had it she. Ruth knew all too well the ravages of a confession such as she had received, such as she was about to impart, and there was a moment of tremendous valour wherein she paused, in deliberation. For the span of that moment, she felt the courage to hold the horror inside, to keep the truth hidden, to no spill its poison onto others. The feat was well within her grasp. And she felt so in her heart. The silence dragged its feet, the suspense sprawled upon the faces of the agog few. And then, slowly, the moment came to pass. And look after it, she did, yet she did not dare hang on. In the end, Ruth could not bear the heroic solitude of harbouring the horrid truth. She felt sullied and alone in the world, the truth quietly smouldering, quietly consuming her sanity into ash. The strength whisked away from her as at the moment of death, and out poured the doctor’s story.

The hinges screeched wickedly as the door swung ajar. The doctor stepped inside, cautious and alert. A low groan emerged from the floorboards underfoot. There was a chirr, almost a crepitus, flying loose in the air. A sour smell. The doctor stood still, soaking in the peculiar environment into which he was now immersed, irretrievably. Allowing it to whelm his sense. Before him there was a short corridor that disappeared with a right angle to the left. There was darkness ahead, and a light bulb suspended by its wires. And, louder still than the voice of reason, a dense humming hung low to the floor like a gas leak. He cupped his ear and craned his neck to better hear the discreet sound. There came a faint croon from somewhere down the hall, distinct from the hum in its musicality. I have met my patient, thought the doctor, and this renewed in him scientific nature and courage. Momentarily, if at least.

The raw light shed by the naked bulb did nothing to illuminate the corner in which stood the door. Dim as it was, it did, however, allow him to catch sight of a certain glittering particle, mid-flight. The doctor raised a steady hand. The speck fell slowly into his palm. Careful not to set it aflight with his breath, the doctor rummaged through the great many pockets of his coat. He withdrew a set of tweezers and a small magnifying instrument. Deftly and with sure hands, he pinched the fleck with the tweezers, and set about his examination.

A wing. Tiny as it was and veined. A shimmer of purple and dark red travelled its length as he rotated. What creature, or insect rather, he mumbled under his moustache, lost in wonder. The hum filtered back gradually to his ear through the fog of his focused attention, casting a shiver through the doctor’s body. And away flew the wing from his grasp. The doctor followed its glimmering decent. The oil from his fingers must have weighted its feather-lightness for it fell hurriedly in a downward spiral. When it reached the sombre door-sill, it vanished, as swiftly as a frightened fly, sucked into the world beyond the portentous door.

My fate will shortly resemble yours, thought the doctor lugubriously.

A vibration rippled through his wrist as his fingers enclosed the doorknob. A perfect match to the tremor in the tiny bones of his ears, caused by the incessant hum. Auditory Ossicles, he thought, aiming to quiet his apprehensions by means of anatomy. The quake made quick work of its contagion from his hand onward into his arm, shoulder, and soon his entire body was vibrating. His skin tingled as though infested subcutaneously by a great many crawling, writhing insects.

Hmpf, muttered the doctor to little avail. Such was the invasiveness of the hum to which his ears fell victim that he had become deaf to the sound of his own voice. His eyes began to water and he could not keep from sneezing in great seismic bouts.

In his distress, he turned the knob and pushed with much excessive weight. The door gave way easily, and the doctor stumbled inwards, catching himself mere inches from the sickbed where a young man lay. The door crashed with great destructive momentum into the wall and swiftly rebounded meeting its frame with much clamour and finality. Thus, the room was plunged back into the utmost darkness. The doctor stepped cautiously backwards, fumbling as he went into the great many pockets of his coat. With equal measure of fear, of the dark and of what the light might reveal, he deliberated a moment before striking the match that his searches had produced. Its phosphorous sulphide tip flared, dimmed, then promptly extinguished. The room imprinted itself against the rear wall of his eye. Retina. Beeswax covered every surface around him in great ponds and stalactites. A few candles were left that had not been fully consumed. The young man shuffled under his covers in the dark. Not dead, the doctor thought accidentally.

The first candle he lit seemed to cast more shadows than light throughout the room. Only when he had located and lit all eleven remaining candles with his one, did the room become an environment conducive to reason anew. The humming had altogether ceased and before him lay nothing but a sickly young man.

Ablata causa tollitur effectus, spoke the doctor into the light with a grave voice. If the cause is taken away, its effects will disappear.

The doctor dragged a small wooden chair from under a desk and took a seat. Careful not to cast too many stray glances. He cleared the bedside table from its few greasy vases from the brim of which, wilting flowers drooped. From his briefcase, he withdrew a medical kit, which he unrolled onto the night-stand. The polished silver of his instruments sparkled brightly under the many flickering flames. Satisfied, the doctor turned his full attention to his patient. He examined facial features and bedding. The young man had and was sweating profusely onto his sheets, in fact, the mattress had already begun to mould under him. And yet, his face revealed very little pain or discomfort. The doctor drew the covers away from under the young man’s chin unveiling an emaciated and shrivelled body, bare of clothes. One by one, the doctor’s keen eyes picked out the various outbreaks of hives on his patient’s skin. Numerous indeed. Urticaria, he thought, not at all displeased with the scientific nature of the diagnostic. Of course, having been bedridden for what seemed like weeks, many of the red patches were no doubt little more than bedsores. He reached out, selected a magnifying glass from his kit and, with the help of a candle, fell to his examination.

There was little that his inspection revealed which defied his diagnostic, although he did think it queer how geometrical some of the eruptions were under closer inspection. He spent much time, hunched over his patient, examining a specific outbreak located between the fourth and fifth ribs near the sternum. Odd indeed was the straight edges of some of the red swollen protuberances. Almost…hexagonal, he thought, but did not dare utter.

The particular area that caught his examiner’s eye, was at the centre of the affected area. A minuscule dark sliver was encrusted there, under the almost translucent skin. Blindly, not wanting to lose sight of the foreign object, he reached back, feeling with his hand until he found a pair of flat-nosed pincers. The sliver slipped away easily from the transpiring wound and was followed by a filament of sticky pus-like fluid. His magnifying glass failed to expose anything valuable. But what of the pus? His inquisitive mind wondered further. The tip, the sharp end of the sliver, had been facing outwards. Hmm, he uttered, chewing his lip.

The doctor encapsulated the specimen, making mental note of the slight hook in its shape and returned to his examination. He swabbed the affected area, cleansing it for further inspection. The wound had remained open and had not ceased its secretion of the pale glutinous fluid. The doctor swabbed anew and looked closer. The eruption on the pale white skin was fiery red, and he could not remember if it had always been so. The skin seemed to be parting further, though he could not be sure in the flickering light. He leaned closer, so that his heels no longer touched the ground and his face was inches away from his patient’s chest. Then, it came. Viscous like a birth, a pair of antennas wormed their way out of the wound. And then, the eyes of a million eyes. And the yellow fur and the wings.

The doctor was petrified. Anthophila. The doctor whispered the word, as though pronouncing the name of great evil.

Once her story was done, the few who had been Ruth’s audience, the besmirched few, were kicked aback from their inquisitive lean, as though released from the grips of the story, setting in motion the rocking that now could not be stopped.

© 2021 Etienne Robert. All rights reserved.

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