by Valerian Shinn
It was the savoir-faire of the taxidermist in the face of small pox that caught his attention. When word arrived of the resurgence of the pestilence, staff gathered in corners muttering as icy fear encircled each contracting heart. Some disappeared, hurrying home to family or racing to the ports for a ship bound anywhere away. But most stayed inside the dark brick walls now serving to keep the crimson death out, while still keeping the mad within. The patients soon knew something was afoot. With uncanny insight into the fears of the sane, they capered about singing the old songs and reciting antiquated rhymes of poxy death and magical remedies.
Then came travelers to the gate, demanding food, water, shelter, aid –– asking asylum now from the asylum they had always shunned. The Director sent word no one was to be admitted for any reason. Doctors and priests were turned away with beggars. The King’s messenger shook his fist, threatening to lay charges of conspiracy against the whole place. A few of the staff blanched at this. One man moved jerkily toward the postern door, but stopped immediately when the Director barked his command.
Inevitably, the pox found its way inside. Quarantine was established in the farthest wing, with ill staff and ill patients caring for each other as best they could. A quiet Sister, known only as a shrinking violet, calmly insisted on ministering to the ill. She was the first to die, and the tendrils of smoke curling up from her pyre drove the last of the supplicants from the gate. All now knew the asylum had not escaped.
Tempers frayed. More staff slipped away overnight or left openly. Even patients found ways to escape. But the taxidermist not only stayed but offered assistance. Taking it upon himself to lay out the dead, he gathered wood and kindling, then doused the rotting corpses with oil to speed the burning, doing all with a reverence that amused the Director, who watched from his tower room, standing with the Chief Sister at the open window.
“Oh, look, sir!” she cried. “He is a saint among us… indeed, more saintly than any saint, he is a god! Weak in mind he may be, but how noble in spirit!”
Tiring of her periphrastic epanorthosis, the Director turned away from the window, eyebrow arching as he smiled sardonically. “Why does he bother, I wonder,” he said quietly. “It’s like sucking a popsicle in a blizzard to burn one poxed corpse, when there are so many more to come. … I wonder …” Then, turning back to the ruddy-cheeked Sister, he said, “I will go down.”
Disdaining his own safety, or embracing its ephemeral nature, the Director found the taxidermist’s room. The jumble of books, papers, skins, feathers, the odd bone, and bottles of chemicals spoke to the man’s long residence as much as his eclectic interests. Opening notebooks at random, picking up a jar of frogs preserved in some viscous fluid, he waited. As the last of the daylight slipped from the sky, the man appeared, sleeves rolled to the elbows, drying his wet hands and arms with a rough linen towel. He stilled like a wild thing on seeing the Director in his room.
“Relax, man,” the Director said, waving his hand expansively. “I am prey to curiosity only. Why bother with your ministrations?”
The taxidermist spoke slowly, like a man accustomed to silence. “It will contain the disease in time,” he said.
“We’ll all be dead by then,” the Director replied.
The taxidermist shot the Director a keen glance. “Not all,” he said. “Have you no knowledge of this?” Finishing with the towel, he dropped it in a basin by the door and rolled down his shirt sleeves, carefully buttoning the cuffs. “I will not.”
“You?” The Director was astounded. “How can you be so sure?”
The taxidermist took a small lantern from the rough table and handed it to the Director. “Have you ever really looked at me?” he asked, seemingly at random. Standing square, he said, “Look at me now. Look at my face.”
Not knowing what else to do, the Director opened one side of the lantern and shined it full on the taxidermist’s face. Looking for he knew not what, he noted the height and breadth of the forehead, the deepest eyes, the strength of the jawline. Had he not known the taxidermist was mad, he would have thought this the face of a learned man, a thoughtful man. Then he noticed the skin, marked with odd scars, small sunken circular marks that were almost like … “the pox,” he breathed. “You have had the pox.”
The lantern in the Director’s hand began to shake. The taxidermist took if from him and set it back on the table. “As you see,” he said. “As you see.”
“You will explain,” the Director said firmly, attempting to reassert his authority.
“It is simply told,” the taxidermist replied. “In truth, I am not a stuffer of dead skins but a healer of live ones. I worked with country people and their animals. Did you know that sheep have their own pox, similar to ours? One of many things sheep and people share.” A twisted smile gleamed for a moment. “Many years ago, during another time of pestilence, I saw that shepherds and their families did not fall to the crimson death. When I asked why, they said they all had the sheep pox and, sickening of it without dying, they were saved from a worse fate.”
He spread his hands wide in a deprecating gesture. “I was young, on fire for knowledge. I insisted they infect me. They would not, so I infected myself. It was vile, but short … a few weeks only … and I lived, gaining only the scars you see. Then I took every chance I had to catch the small pox, and I could not. I wrote letters. I gave talks. I wanted everyone to know of this wonderful discovery. The shepherds tried to warn me, but I would not listen. I wanted to save the world.”
“What happened?” the Director asked.
“The priests complained I was subverting the will of God. I argued with them. The bishops said I was preaching heresy. I argued with them too. Finally, the High Court found a way to stop me.”
The Director, a man of wide experience and few illusions, felt a chill slide down his spine as the taxidermist stopped for a deep breath before continuing with his tale.
“I was tried for heresy, but treated with leniency since my delusion was meant to be helpful. I was declared mad … Instead of burning me, they sent me here.”