One Dead Eye

by Avery Cahill

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You must understand: there is no blood on my hands. At worst, you can accuse me of hesitation. Had I acted more quickly, would my dear friend Dr. Scott Norwood be alive? But teachers, especially professors, are cautious and bound to Occam’s Razor, wherein the simplest explanation is the best. And what explanation other than my own madness could have accounted for the horrors I have seen? But I have learned that Truth and Nature are far more complex than the law of parsimony, and that simple explanations are too often a euphemism for wishful thinking. For my part, you can, at worst, blame me for an unwillingness to believe the visions of my dead eye.

True, in the ongoing investigation of Dr. Scott Norwood’s death – which was neither murder, for murder is one man slaying another, or suicide, which implies Scott, that vibrant, kind soul and my cherished companion, intended to murder himself – I, Professor Jonathan Marsh, perjured myself, swearing Scott’s insanity engendered his demise. Circumstances now compel me to write the truth, for Scott acted in self-defense, a most rational motivation for violence. If this new testimony flies in the face of Scott’s suicide note, which the River Bend Daily printed in part, so be it. It is not that his final words are irrelevant, they are misunderstood. I can quote the letter by heart, but one section recalled the dread building in me these past months:

“When I touch my apartment’s wall, the bricks feel rough, solid and straight, but look so melted and decayed. My feet tell me one thing, but my eyes another. I fall daily – two or three times. Jonathan, whose voice is so melodious and whose skin is smooth perfection to my fingers, appears as a shifting abscess of molten flesh. Is this what you see? Is this how it’s supposed to be? All my life, I have wanted to see, to know shape and color and shade, and what these words really mean. Instead, all I see is horror upon horror. My thoughts are not my own. I wander the streets hunting for food. I cannot control my urge to touch other people, to caress their faces, their eyes. Often, I find myself in bed with no recollection of the day – just a black hole in my mind. Ah, the worms. This isn’t right. I will endure it no longer.”

I convinced the police that poor Scott suffered from a physiological malady brought on by his newfound sight, since the historical record does not favor the blind who can see later in life. Even in our age of medical science, the recent case studies published in the prestigious Journal of Psychology offer no help to these unfortunate people, and do little more than prove that their prognosis is grim. In the last fifty years, five men and two women, blind from birth, gained sight: two from surgical procedures, three by the treatment of the tropical maladies that afflicted them, and two for reasons unknown to science. These unfortunate few learned that their new sense brought not delight but horror. Their occipital lobes, so the psychologist surmised, had not learned to process the signals from the optic nerve. Instead of perceiving discrete shapes, they saw the world around them writhe in a jumble of color and random motion. Though the word properly applies to the aural senses, I can only describe what these poor souls saw as a cacophony. They were autistic with respect to their eyes. None could bear it. The article reported they must walk the earth blindfolded, and even this does not provide complete relief. The very pressure the blindfold exerts on the eyeball triggers retinal stimuli.

This, I told the police, is what happened to Scott. He, too, had been blind, but recently learned to see. I didn’t mention that I, who as an adult lost the use of my left eye in the Great War and had never had problems with my good right eye, knew why Dr. Norwood, my dear Scott, had taken his life. I, too, have seen the horrors of Lem.

But, like many woeful tales, this one begins with hope. Scott came to me this August last with a smile and, if I may be permitted to use such a banal expression, a spring in his step. He asked if I had read the paper, and when I said I had not, he took his copy, which he held folded under one arm, and opened it on my breakfast table. Scott moved with such grace and self-assurance, I almost never considered him blind. Although a servant read him the River Bend Daily, I had never seen him react with anything but scorn for that “old fish wrap,” as he referred to it. But today was different. He ran a finger down the page to a spot he had fixed in his mind, and bade me read.

In two days’ time, the famous finger of St. Altwerden would be on public display at St. John’s Cathedral. Naturally, you recall this very relic had been making international headlines in the Old World for its supposed ability to heal the sick, especially the blind. I thought perhaps Scott was in one of his sardonic moods and having a little fun, because he wanted to take the bus to Milwaukee just to see the spectacle. I didn’t want to waste the day on a fool’s errand, but Scott insisted and persisted.

***

The object of adoration lay inside a cathedral-shaped feretory crafted with a jeweler’s attention to detail, spires and all. One side, however, was crystal, serving as a fenestella. The unknown artisan had imbued the work with the same mixture of melancholy, awe, peace, and even dread that true cathedrals possess, but he had added mannerist touches that lent the object a loathsome yet compelling aspect. The twin spires guarding the tiny entrance twisted and listed; their stones appeared to have melted over the years like the warped panes of old windows. The long, thin buttresses created an insectile aspect as if a bloated, glass-sided spider had consumed St. Altwerden’s index finger. The artist had chosen some dark, jade-like porphyry I could not recognize to fashion the case. As we shifted in line, the crystals dotting its surface caught the light like muted diamonds. The thing’s soft lines seemed to undulate, afflicting me with dizzying vertigo.

Others were sensitive to the miniature cathedral’s disturbing properties. Behind me, a man in a gray suit looked pale as a cemetery moon, and ahead of me, an elderly woman caused a sensation when, after tottering for a moment as if intoxicated, she fell to the floor. Immediately, a young priest led her to the pews, where I overheard her complain about sudden and extreme motion sickness. He offered her a handkerchief to mop her sweat-beaded brow and sent an usher for water.

The blind took no notice of the feretory’s deleterious effects. This lent me some comfort, for I reasoned the strange perspective of the thing’s design and not another physical cause sickened the onlookers. For, you see, according to Voragine’s Aurea Legenda, which I read before our trip, the stone for the feretory had fallen from heaven, and I feared it emanated strange radiations like those that killed the noble Madame Curie this past July.

Just after ten, Friar Montiglio, the monk who traveled with the artifact, prayed, calling on St. Altwerden to bestow a blessing upon us. He spoke in Latin, so aside from myself, Norwood and, perhaps, the other priests, no one understood him. I mention this because the prayer never invoked the Father or the Son. Instead he called in nomine Altverdii. I joined the others at the Amen and waited for him to open the fenestella. The friar then allowed us to approach and receive the Saint’s blessing.

St. Altwerden’s right index finger lay on a rectangular red velvet cushion trimmed with golden frills. An unpleasant squirming sensation wormed through my stomach, for the finger was curiously life-like: the skin pink and flush, the flesh full without decay or the false, waxy pallor I have seen on the holy bodies in St. Peter’s, where pontiffs and saints are displayed in glass coffins. I half-expected the finger to wriggle and the priest to reveal that an assistant, concealed under the altar, projected a finger through a hole.

Feigning politeness, a hefty woman wearing a faded floral-print kerchief around her hair coughed into her fist. I realized I had been holding up the line, yet I could not take my eyes from the glass.

After I kissed the finger, I remember well how heat spread through my dead eye. I cupped my left eye in pain and jerked back, bumping the woman behind me. When my eye stopped watering, I removed my hand and blinked, holding my breath in anticipation. Except for the usual ghostly shades of white, gray, and black, the eye remained dead. I cursed my naiveté, chagrined a man with my learning could have, even for a moment, fallen prey to the specter of such idle hope. As I walked out to the street, I told myself I had experienced nothing more than a profound psychosomatic effect like those pilgrims who tremble upon setting foot in the Holy Land for the first time, and it comforted me there were educated people among them: doctors, lawyers and such.

After Scott received St. Altwerden’s blessing, we rode the bus with hardly a word. He, too, suffered disappointment, and I wondered how much greater his was than mine, for I still had one good eye. He slouched as he walked home from the terminal, tapping his cane so carelessly he jostled one of the young elms the city had planted along the sidewalk’s edge. I recalled how excited and nervous he had been that morning, how flushed his cheeks, how wide his smile. Now I know true horrors lurk all around us, but at that moment I knew nothing so pernicious and ugly as hope.

I put my arm on his shoulder to comfort him. He raised a trembling hand and touched my face, his fingertips delayed at my cheek for a moment. Suddenly, he recoiled.

“This isn’t right,” he said, and rushed off in the direction of his apartment. I followed his wavering course until he turned left and disappeared in a milky haze. I was mortified then, because of his rejection; I’m mortified now, because I misunderstood his words.

***

For several weeks, I went back to my routine. There were tests to prepare and grade, books to read, and papers to write. In addition, I handled the usual complaints and excuses from students, and outlandish and demeaning requests from deans. The semester eased from summer to fall. The trees of Roosevelt Quad blazed briefly in autumnal fire before withering to twisted, skeletal fingers.

During this time, I could not bring myself to speak to Scott, although I longed to commiserate with him over a fine port. If only we could have eased our shared pain regarding this immoral Friar Montiglio, who bilked the faithful with a freakish side-show. I contented myself by composing several complaint letters to the local diocese, but they went unanswered.

I said the semester was uneventful, but that is not quite the case. Work, I should say, proved uneventful, but my health, because insomnia plagued me, worsened as the weather grew colder. I drank coffee by the pot, morning, noon and night, but chastised myself for this behavior, since I knew the caffeine contributed to the insomnia and the strange dreams I’d been experiencing before dawn, when sleep came at last. Those dreams were worse than the insomnia itself.

Each night, I woke in a strange land of rolling hills and winding valleys carpeted with a sickly, purple moss. Two moons shone in the sky: one faint and red, no more than two or three bright stars in luminance, the other bloated and green, whose striated, craterous surface suggested neither man nor rabbit, but odd, rubbery fingers or cephalopodous tentacles. Alone, I would wander nightly this treeless land under those unwholesome moons, descending slippery slopes of steep dales and undulating hills. But for small, faint, red stars, the sky was black. I felt I stood at the end of time.

Every morning, I arose in a cold sweat, exhausted as if I had exerted myself for hours. Never much of an eater, I now was ravenous. I ate eggs, waffles, pancakes, and sausage for breakfast, before buying several pastries at Mollie’s bakery for the walk to work. I ate throughout the day, never less than four meals, not to mention countless snacks. My waistband, however, remained a thirty-four, and I attributed this to the increased caffeine and my longer, fitful waking hours.

As October advanced, things grew worse. The dreams became so lucid, upon waking I wondered which world was real. I fancied I saw the horrible, purple hills from my dreams overlaid on River Bend’s cobble streets and flat parks, a ghostly transparency. During the day, this effect was weak and intermittent, but at night the purple hills of Lem – somehow, I knew the nightmare land’s name – coexisted with the street lights, theater marquees and overcast sky . I stumbled as I walked, anticipating the rise and fall of terrain only I could perceive. Once, a local constable, believing I was intoxicated, stopped me during my odd perambulation. When I answered all questions forthrightly, he dismissed me with a pitying gaze reserved for what was once affectionately known as “the absent-minded professor”.

***

I remember the night perfectly: October the twentieth, nineteen-hundred and thirty-four. The clouds released their heavy burden, washing the color from the city so the world became as lead from the heavens to the earth. That evening, my visions of Lem were strong.

I was walking home after a long stint in the library where I had spent time with Dryden and Wilde, deciding on suitable paper topics for the second semester of Introduction to English Literature. Stumbling as I compensated for the false terrain, and tripping over curbs and cracks in the sidewalk when the purple hills hid their presence, I sought shelter from the rain under a barbershop’s frayed awning. As I ducked under the heavy water stream cascading down the awning, a large drop struck my good eye. I shut it instinctually. Though Main Street, the barbershop and the entire town disappeared, to my horror and astonishment, the purple land of Lem remained. My dead eye saw my dreamland.

Horrified, I ran home, striking parked cars and crashing headlong into the garbage cans outside my brownstone. Inside, I caught my breath, dried off and made some coffee while I tried to understand what had befallen me. Once in my kitchen, I found the effect lessened, but I could still see the dream world with my dead eye. My good eye, I realized, never once tricked me with these eldritch visions. To my right eye, I was alone in my sparse but cozy apartment, surrounded by my books and papers. Was this madness or the prodromes of ocular disease?

Unwilling to face my possible insanity, I spent the next several weeks studying journals and textbooks, looking for physiological causes for my condition. I exhausted the standard literature available without finding a single clue other than the life-altering probability I was suffering a schizoid episode. Next, I perused the older works in the collection. There, too, I had no luck until late one evening, just before closing, I signed out Banister Richard’s A Treatise of one hvndred and thirteene Diseases of the Eyes and Eye-liddes from the rare book collection. The heavy tome dated from the 1600s and, like the better medical works from that time, was illustrated with meticulous drawings. I found nothing in Richard’s book that explained my condition, but I noticed someone had torn out several contiguous pages and their accompanying plates. The librarian, a sober young woman who took pride in her work and charges’ care, set about finding out who last looked at the book. After half an hour of cajoling and scholarly outrage, I convinced her to give me the malefactor’s name – Scott Norwood.

But Scott was blind. For an old text like the Hundred Diseases, he needed a reader. The university offered him such assistance, but the librarian assured me both Norwood and his coadjutor would have had to sign for such a rare book. There was no second signatory in the log.

I felt the urge to contact Scott. Did he suffer as I? It seemed impossible, but perhaps he could see – although, I presumed, his eyes did not function as he had hoped. I put aside my fear, determined to see him.

As I buttoned my coat, the librarian, bless her diligence, informed me Richard’s book was a translation of an older work by a certain Jacques Guillemeau, namely Traité des maladies de l’oeil. Curiosity overcame me, so I remained and examined the original manuscript before seeking out Scott. I convinced myself that I needed to see the missing plates, but part of me was glad I had an excuse to delay.

In those old pages I found much Richard had left out from his scientific translation – fantastic and horrible tales of prophecy, possession demonic, and the Second Sight accompanied the sober descriptions of ocular disease. But even Richard must have included some of the fantastic in his translation, perhaps to illustrate the more debased elements in Guillemeau, for Norwood had found and removed several pertinent pages. After I swore on my honor as a full professor in good standing that no harm would come to the book, the librarian left me alone with a key and a promise to return the tome when I finished. I surmise her willingness to leave me was due in part to the horrendous images of diseased and putrefied eyes she saw while looking over my shoulder. When she left, she was rather pale.

I spent hours poring over the Guillemeau manuscript. Since Richard had excised and so rearranged the text, it was no simple matter to locate the missing pages. Furthermore, though Guillemeau wrote primarily in French, he liberally employed Latin, Greek, Sanskrit and even some pictographic languages whose origin remains a mystery, neither Asian, Egyptian, nor Mesoamerican in appearance. I will not describe what other unwholesome discoveries I made, but it will suffice to say that in the most fantastic sections of Guillemeau lay hints and references to other, even darker, works, which remain, I hope, in the custody of that famous collection in Arkham.

Over the course of my studies, the shadows grew long and threatening in those lonely stacks. The tables, chairs, even the wan light from the lamps took on a miasmic purple hue that recalled the reviled land of Lem. The objects around me lost their crispness, their edges translucent, ghostly films, one laid atop another. Fatigue in my good eye produced a terrible headache. My vision tunneled when I focused on the book’s yellowing pages. Yet I pressed on, knowing an answer to my affliction might be at hand, a rational diagnosis, one I could present to a doctor who, in turn, would cure me.

It must have been well past three a.m. when I turned the page in a chapter dedicated to the De Volentate et Oculis (concerning the will and the eyes) and read a story so unbelievable I would have laughed off the entire tale as medieval hoax, had I not lived through these last weeks or felt an icy trickle down my spine upon reading the unholy name of eternal Chaos.

There exists a race of grubs, the homunculi, according to Guillemeau, though he also claimed other names for them, the X’illith, the Spawn of the Spawn, The Spores of Lem. Long before our sun cast its feeble light into the infinite black, dread Azathoth’s gibbering servants beat the reverberating drums that scattered the Spores across space’s endless folds. Wherever they fall, they seek a host, for though they can survive the aether, they cannot long abide the planetary spheres without a body. The Spores infiltrate the host, replacing its body with their own until even the host’s memories change as the brain’s tissues grow X’illithic. They consume the planet’s life, and when the hosts die, they burst forth as ravaging spores to conquer new, doomed suns. The tale went on: for every grain of sand upon Bamburgh Beach, there is a planet; on each of these planets lies other beaches, for each grain in these beaches again there is another planet, so reckoned the number of worlds the X’illith consumed. Each host had a weakness, a womb for the spores to grow. In man, so wrote Guillemeau, it was the eye.

Three panels divided the accompanying plate – each black-and-white print worthy of Dürer at his finest. The first, labeled St. Altwerden, depicted a man in a friar’s robe extending a hand to touch a kneeling wretch with eyes pupil-less and milky white. The saint’s finger was out of proportion with his body, elongated and fluid as if the bones contained three-fold a human finger’s joints. A banner waved in the background. The word Spes scrawled across it in gothic lettering. The second panel in the foreground showed the wretch walking along a rolling landscape, the man’s eyes now a healthy brown, but he walked arms outstretched as though still blind. In the background, countless others followed, who, like him, walked with arms outstretched. On one hill, the word Falsus. The final panel was an anatomical enlargement of the human eye. Inside the eyeball, coiled like ropes, lived a grotesque worm. In the body of the worm the phrase Corpus Altwerdi.

Nausea overcame me and I emptied my stomach on the library’s floor then, and this I can hardly recall, I ran. I ran through the quad, down Washington, and across the Bayer bridge. I ran through old Federal Park and past the courthouse. I ran from the madness of my discoveries in Guillemeau’s blasted tome and for the horrifying fear of what lay ahead. Too late, I ran to Scott’s apartment.

The rest you know. At four a.m., my desperate pounding on Scott’s door awoke his landlady. When I shouldered through the his locked door, she notified the police, but she never once entered the apartment, at least not until later. Scott had drawn the living room window’s shades, and the apartment was dark, save for a reading lamp on a table next to the sofa. But in my memory, that scant, yellow light shone on the table with brilliant incandescence, because it illuminated Scott’s note with a circular spot, while its focused beam deepened the gloom over the slumped form that hulked on the sofa and the black pool spreading along the floor. Except for the excerpts I quoted from the Daily, I will not relate the aforementioned note’s contents, for they are personal to me and Scott’s family, but I will always be haunted be those last words: “This isn’t right. I will endure it no longer.” Scott, dearest Scott, rejected not me, but the filthy creatures that twisted his senses.

And endure it he did not, for he had taken scissors and cut out the offending orbs. But he was not mad, and you must not think him so. To judge him insane would be to cloak me with the same mantle, and I shall not bear it. He lost his life when he took his eyes, but, I say again, he did the only thing he could, in a moment of perfect sanity. For on the floor in that crimson pool at his feet – Oh, I cannot bear to describe it – two purple worms wriggled, each one a horrible, twisting finger. Even as I watched, they dissolved, subliming into a noxious, yellow cloud.

***

And what am I to do? I have given this testimony so my colleagues will understand what I must do. No physician can help me; there is no succor in man’s science. I still have some hope. Not for a normal life, no, that is gone forever, but for a life. I have called an ambulance. It will arrive anon. Now, I must heat the blade. At least I possess only one dead eye.

THE END

Avery Cahill has worn many hats in his life from working at a cheese factory to Lecturer of Classics. He lived in Japan, where he taught Beatles songs to a Yakuza, and Norway, where he learned that ketchup and pizza don’t mix. He is a graduate of the Odyssey Writers’ Workshop, and his fiction has appeared in Dog Oil Press. Stop by and say hi. http://avery-cahill.livejournal.com/