Published: Nov 20, 2020 5:00:00 PM



Lorna settled back into her desk chair and I found a seat for myself, oddly happy to dwell in the simple familiarity of academic attentiveness.

“I didn’t meet Kendrick Loomis personally for some time,” Lorna began. “He was spoken of, naturally, within academic circles. Raving, always, the men couldn’t get enough of this fellow. He summoned a romanticism to critical thinking. It was usually the territory of monks and dreary librarians—archivists slumbering upon mountains of Plato and Newton, hardly worth the spit in their mouths, and they would die as such. Worthless and forgotten. Academics could barely keep their shoes. As the Confederacy had seceded, none could give a wit for the finer points of book learning.

“The first time I recall hearing Kendrick’s name was in 1869. This was the year before we came to Shackleburg. Dirk and I had been married four years earlier. Somehow, he had survived the rebs without a bullet in his gut and all his fingers and toes remained in place. He examined the war as a man does, the blood, the senselessness, and the machinery of it all. The conflict was filthy. I didn’t think too terribly much of it at the time. I hardly knew a thing about how men were meant to behave. I had been educated in reading, writing, and grammar at Radcliffe College in Cambridge, Massachusetts. The school was new and exciting, and I was so young.

“Through Dirk, I would soon meet Gustave, and through Gustave, I would meet Kendrick, but I won’t get ahead of myself. Dirk was a warrior. He and Gustave Tatum shared a fascination with the human body. It made Dirk an effective killer. He knew where to pierce a man’s flesh to kill him slowly. He knew the soft places in the skull to strike, if you wanted to kill a man quietly. Paralyzing nerves was a particular delight for him. He told me stories of battles, as they neared their end, he would use these techniques to terrify the Confederates. He would put their limbs to sleep with needles and small punctures. He could—if and when he wanted to—take away all feeling in the body and leave you alone with only your sight.

“This was the root of his electrochemical interests. Dirk came to understand the body was a network of interconnected energies and even electrical impulses on a sensory level. Further and further, he deduced that if we, if people, were merely a cluster of nerves powered by impulse, it implied exterior electrical impulses could in essence command a person’s actions, just as the brain does with its electrical impulses. The novel, Frankenstein, fascinated him. But he harbored no desire to create new life. His sights were aimed lower. He wished to dominate existing life.

“It was in our second year of marriage when I learned this—chiefly when he made it clear he had no desire to have children. I’d never imagined a man could think that way. In all the stories—the books you read—it’s a man’s impulse to sire an heir that would carry on his place in the world once he passes, thus achieving some degree of temporary immortality. But Dirk did not. Why would he even wed? Out of love? I feared, constantly. What a fate for a young woman, stripped of the purpose we were trained for, perhaps capable, but never even charged with a task. It was foolish thinking, I have no doubt now. Still, the uncertainty tormented me. Ah, I was youthful and mindless.

“But I was in pain. The mind maintains a terrible capacity to perpetuate pain across the entire body. Dirk attempted to take it away. I brought my worries to him and he elected to leave me paralzed on the bed for hours at a time. Alone, unmoving, with only my thoughts until feeling returned to my limbs—a chance for him to test and observe his numbing techniques on my physiology. My trust in my husband compelled me to accept his proposed treatment. It also permitted me the opportunity to be a—to be somebody to him. In his life. I could share something with him. Because we shared little else.

“In those moments of paralysis, trapped, I contemplated my totality when nearly all my distracting senses went missing. I do not believe I could ever feel so alone. I was not even certain I was still alive at times. How could I be alive? I could exert no control. I was only an object at the mercy of the universe.

“At last, I gathered the courage to make a suggestion to Dirk. Perhaps, I pointed out, there was more in my physiology than could be explained with electrochemical experimentation. Something beyond his expertise. Though it was hardly expertise, I ought to say. He was a self-taught half-scientist with a childlike curiosity and no method. But he accepted my idea. At the time I was overjoyed that I could once more be a component of his life and his work.

“Dirk delivered me to Gustave Tatum, an Austrian physic. He and Dirk had bonded following the war, sharing their fascination with the human body and its myriad complexities. The pair challenged one another constantly and rarely agreed, save on one point—there must not be more wars. Despite their aptitude for killing and deconstruction of the human form in the most clinical of fashions, Dirk and Gustave held distaste for mass slaughter. I wonder to this day why this was? They could contemplate the volumes of blood and bile in a human body, and which elements were truly necessary to continue brain function. Yet the thought of total human annihilation, and the resulting world following a massive loss of life, shook them in the night like little boys away from home. Dirk was a fitful sleeper. His hearing was dim, so when loud noises did penetrate his ears, he would immediately panic.

“Gustave eventually accepted me as a patient, as Dirk requested. We moved to St. Louis where Gustave had his practice and together, he began his treatment of me. It was believed I still suffered an emotional distress, and I agreed. I was weighed with ennui and melancholy, like I was separated from a thing I had never known, like I was haunted by a future terror I could not fully form with my mind. In fact, I could imagine no future for myself. I remained only an object, listless, and sad, for no recognizable reason. I was cared for and I was not starving. But there remained an absence.

“What came next was described as a moral treatment. Gustave’s methods were non-invasive, and non-restraint therapeutic methods. I initially believed he would stick me with pins or shock me with electrical currents, as Dirk had in the past.

“Instead, Gustave simply spoke with me. It was alarming, at first. Here was a man that had still carried a recognizable odor of blood on his skin, no matter his attempts to wash it clean. It was present as a third participant in the room with us. We met twice each week on Mondays and Thursdays in the parlor at his house, and discussed whatever came to mind. I’ll say again, it was alarming, being a married woman in an unmarried man’s house—and having traveled weeks from Boston to be there—to have conversations. Deliberate, focused conversations. I felt it was best to trust Gustave, for Dirk trusted him, and I remained compelled to believe in my husband’s good intentions. Gustave was, after all, a medical doctor, offering a solution to my phantom dissatisfaction with life.

“I don’t recall the exact moment when I began distrusting Gustave and Dirk. It was gradual, like falling in love. But after countless sessions of study under the watchful gaze of both of these men, I made the decision that I would no longer be their subject. I suppose the simplest way to make a decision to misunderstand something, and then do the opposite.

“Before reaching that point, feelings overcame me. I all at once experienced everything in the surrounding world and dismissed its trivialities. Internal feelings dominated external sources. I eventually grew indifferent to all others around me, Gustave and Dirk included, and our times together became mute affairs. I no longer cared about achieving the blissful happiness, ever elusive, and soon the numbness failed to be noticeable. I soon felt the compulsion to hide. We would attend social gatherings in St. Louis and when asked questions, I forgot all manners and posturing. We were soon invited to fewer gatherings. I felt drained of personality, weary, and sick at my center.

“Gustave began discussing my deterioration with Dirk. They would commiserate after my sessions, asking me to wait outside in the hallway. I saw many paths forward in life, most horrible or delicate, like painted glass, already begun to crack. I could kill them both. I’d do it during the night, one of so many ways. I could manipulate them into killing each other. It would be easy, influencing Gustave to distrust Dirk. It might be the end of all things for me if I did. I might find the end of a rope, we were nearly west of the Mississippi and godless lands lay beyond. Sometimes, I believed I might become too lonely without the company of these familiar wretches. Sometimes, I felt sad. But I sank lower into myself, each passing week and month, always finding a new bottom of the abyss of melancholy. There were always more edges to topple over.

“It must have been like being a man. I was not sending workers out to build roads, or men to die in wars, or harvesting wealth from bountiful business, but I could always imagine further depravities I might commit. For the first time, I felt a want—I did not want to feel boredom anymore. Such a small idea. Boredom was pain. Suffering a world I could not control was pain, and I hated it, and I determined at last I could rightfully ease that boredom in manipulation of the world around me. These two men were my world. In my lifetime as a full-grown woman, I had known no other world and I did not want to hurl lightning bolts or boil the seas because that was not my world. I wanted to bend these two men to my will.

“Now I had a problem to solve. At last. My environments became objects, keys, or obstructions. Equipment for the task.

“I had waited for too long—I realize this far after the fact—for permission. I did not admire either of these men and their quest for control over elements far mightier than they, yet still, they dominated my life, and I begged this tiny world of mine for validation, recognition, and permission to battle my pain. It remained the territory of experimentations and violation. I feared the potential pain of hope and that realization only angered me further. Yet, always, I kept these feelings within, expressing only strange or unusual facsimiles of unhappiness for Gustave when we met in his parlor. I had to confess to myself—I had already begun. My work in chasing away my boredom, my pain, my anger, my dissatisfaction, my hate, my falsified place in this strange, tiny sphere, I alone had to recognize it was already over in my heart.

“I must now annihilate myself and rebuild.”

-- Alex Crumb
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