The Strange Case of Dr. Bomstein
I tend to the teeth of the freaks.
It is not an entirely unpleasant job, as one may suspect. All aren’t rotted knot-work, enamel, yellowed with breath of smoke and tar, food stuffs and fist fights. Actually, the teeth of my primary charge, those of the sideshow, are not remarkably different, I imagine, from others who have luxury enough to go into town — those who can afford the attentions of my local compatriots — as the circus moves from field to field.
I have been asked, time to time, to give a brief inspection of a critical case, yes – the tent men, the lion tamer, the magician’s assistant, once even the barker – so I know that the differences are but minor. But how do you convince a member of my new, yet respected profession, that to put one’s hand, or instrument, inside a poor soul such as an oddbody, will only prove that we are all but human in the gullet?
Take a man with no arms – and only stumpy, cross-like stilts as a poor substitution (a terrible birth affliction) – and picture the wonder of any untrained physician, upon discovering, such a lovely set of eyeteeth as my patient Dogwood possesses.
I met a roving physician named Terrence something, I forget the surname now, but he was English, that I recall, who asked me straight out, why I could not find better employment than this traveling carnival. He suspected, at first, that my pay was quite substantial, and that was my reward, for the carnies that year were said to be at a high ebb, but I soon told him the plain truth that my wage was no better than a vendor. I explained my fascination with the assignment simply as this: I was conducting a study and would reach some significant conclusions very soon, and he needn’t worry himself about my circumstance, for all was going according to plan.
This Englishman looked assuaged, but still concerned, as if leaving me with highly contagious leper colony – something he seemed to know a tale or two about.
What I did not tell him, although he might have guessed from the marquee, was that one subject in particular was drawing me to this place.
The sideshow itself had sixteen freak performers in all, and on any given night, twelve could be counted on to perform. There were always a handful who would resign themselves to their quarters, located far from the “normal people” on the carnival’s payroll, declining for one excuse or the other. The most common one used was “exhaustion due to his or her given affliction,” but, being in the medical field, I could detect a deeper meaning. I attribute it to an array of emotional disorders that often accompany such physical deformities, or their social condemnations, but that was of no matter. The carnival owners wouldn’t pay much a fuss about it – never being the same freak to consistently beg off, night after night, but a rotating line-up that may have been pre-determined by the freaks, maybe weeks in advance, in order to offer some relief from wide-eyed farm boys, eager for a gaze. There were always enough for a show.
The one they could never do without, however, was the headliner.
This marvel earned the highest wage, five dollars a week, plus room and board, and was counted on for every performance. It was his name that was higher than the others, his status assured, his reputation cemented from this stop to the next by word-of-mouth — some genuine, some purchased in advance. He was the reason I put up with the ridicule, for he was blessed with an extraordinary gift – unbreakable teeth.
The painted red and green sign proclaimed: “Come and See the Amazing Display! Bring Your Own Challenges! Come and See the Human Combine!”
Of course, all this was just something to bring in the local tradesmen and farmers. The Human Combine was nothing more than a man named Peter Sieling, a man I place at about age forty-five, just younger than myself, who was not of bad looks or manners, but simply possessed the whims of a wanderer, the disposition of a stage hound, and the teeth of a giant.
Oh, mind you, it wasn’t just the teeth, it was the stomach, too. Whatever was thrust upon him during his act – various cuts of wood, stones from the road, or in one particularly memorable evening, a live rodent – Sieling would have no trouble first cutting through the matter and, for a shock, taking it into his iron stomach.
I first caught his show in the East, dragged to it by a distant cousin of mine for a distraction, but was so amazed by Peter Sieling’s showmanship and medical nature, I was inclined to have words with him after the show. My cousin warned me against drifting off the path of the midway and back to the tents. But I did so anyway, to have a brief chat with the man who was to become my destiny. I had been mesmerized.
So, at that lull in my career, I decided to have a word with the carnival sponsors and created a need for my services. At a minimal wage, I would travel with them until the end of their current run, performing basic medical functions, but primarily looking after the teeth – those neglected gems – of those who needed it most. I was looked upon with some suspicion at first, but, with time, they grew used to seeing me around, and I was well thought of by everyone.
Everyone except Peter Sieling. I could tell at our first meeting that he was unsure of my interest. What he did, he did for need, not for science
Sieling discovered his stomach in drinking contests – a passion that cost him his wife and daughter, who cleared off in disgust as Sieling was gone more and more from his home. However, he argued he was able to gain a larger income by drinking men under the table for wages than from work in his woodshop. It may have been a fit diversion, this drinking, but as an occupation (an all too obsessive one, at that), it did not make Sieling very pleasurable company.
In fact, when I first spoke with him in his tent, it is true that I encountered quite a different sort of man than the one I perceived on stage. This man was full of moods, wary, not a trace of a kindness even for me, a respected man of my field. He did, however, grant me examinations of his teeth after each show – for his own protection, of course, I assured him.
Sieling discovered his remarkable teeth after a disabling bout in one of the local pubs. He had been beaten severely by mates of one of his losing wagers, tossed into an applecart, and summarily thrown off a small cliff bound by seamen’s rope. He did not fall the full measure, however, and, undiscovered by his enemies, he had simply landed on a lower foundry.
After shouting himself hoarse to try to call attention to his situation, Sieling resigned himself to a bold plan. He would raise himself up by pulling on the chipped footholds in the rocks with his teeth. His arms still bound, he had no other method of opposing force but his own jaw. He knew this would probably damage his teeth beyond any reasonable repair, but if it worked, he could then set himself on revenge. Well, lo and behold, he somehow managed to right himself and climb up the embankment, using only his teeth to steady himself!
Soon, Sieling found himself back on the roadway, alive and intact. Some hours later, I suppose, a traveling priest came across him and untied his arms, thus setting Sieling free to seek his revenge, which I’m sure he attained, although I know not by what means.
At this point in his life, Sieling had all but eliminated his legitimate options for eeking out a living. His woodshop was is dismal repair, and all his customers had abandoned him for a lazy drunkard. Even his disreputable drinking wagers fell away, mostly by his own doing, for he didn’t want a repeat of the above incident, only with a much higher cliff.
So, Sieling found himself, after a short audition, plying his unique talents on the midway, promoted to headliner in rapid fashion.
All went well between Sieling and myself, for a time. He was quite patient with my inquiries, and would often stay up late after his final show for my benefit. I would poke and prod, make notes in my ledger, and, as my subject once pointed out, “mutter to myself like a donkey.” I could sense that Sieling found the whole affair quite boring, and, increasing with each examination, would mock me as I went about my work.
“Haven’t you had enough of me?” he’d say. Or, “Are you so slow as to still need me tonight?”
He usually hit the bottle heartily while I was in his company. I assume this was to wash down whatever poison was forced upon him that evening by the crowd. Some nights, he would become so rapidly drunk, Sieling wouldn’t let me inside his tent, threatening that if I forced my way in he would, “Run me through with the stem of a whisky bottle.”
On those occasions, I thought it best to let him be.
As the weeks of my tenure increased, he became more and more intolerant of my presence. He would grow drunker, and admit me less often. This was the most frustrating part, since I was so far from concluding my research.
Here were my methods:
After each show, I would take Sieling’s pulse, heart rate, and such. Then I would ask him a series of carefully constructed questions, too lengthy to recount in detail here, but basically amounting to how he was feeling, was he ill, and the like. Then I would try to make him possibly regurgitate some of his stomach contents for later evaluation. Sometimes, he would oblige me, giving a sly grin as he did so. I could tell he was waiting for my disgusted reaction, but, in my profession, I have seen much worse. Lastly, I would give his teeth a thorough going over, sometimes up to half-an-hour, and record any nicks or scrapes.
The whole process took upwards of an hour, sometimes longer, and I would stay up late into the night, writing in my tent, drawing my limited conclusions, hoping not to be bothered by any minor case of cavity or bleeding.
One Wednesday evening, a final date in our stay at a particular location, Sieling grew so adamant that I leave him alone, that he actually threw a lighted torch at me! He was blindingly drunk at the time, moreso than I had ever seen, but had suspected he was capable of. The torch missed me by a good space, but a spark lit upon my greatcoat and I had to remove it to stamp out the burgeoning flame. It left a large hole.
It was after this that I wisely decided to cancel our interview and take a short vacation from the rantings of our friend Sieling. The next town was a small burg, the carnival’s first visit to this place, so I was told, and I would use this three-day stay as a chance for recuperation.
As a treat to myself, I ventured into town and got a trim and shine. I also purchased a new greatcoat. After that, I found a nice lodging, someplace other than my tent, someplace where I could find some comfort, and maybe some companionship, other than the carnival. Feeling better, and having made a quick, but nice, acquaintance with two of the other boarders, I went to the local tavern to sup.
It is here that my story takes an unexpected turn.
Let me just preface my remarks by saying that I am not smitten easily. I, accountant in my nature, consider mankind under some kind of glass, like in a display. I study the physical self, in general, and the teeth, in particular, simply because they satisfy some great need in me for order and advancement, a beauty of symmetry. I do not find the human form any more attractive a state than that of elks, or rabbits. That is probably why I find no compunction at being so close to society’s deformed and outcast.
So, for me to walk into a tavern in an unknown town and see an unknown creature that I cannot dismiss from my gaze, is bizarre, to say the least.
Her name was Agetha. She was young, but not as young as the other servants of the tavern. Her hair was fair, her skin pale, but her disposition one of perfect health, charmed and charming, full of vim and vigor. She asked me if I would like some of the meat pie that was all the rage with those at the table next to mine, and I agreed — not because I like meat pie especially, but simply because she suggested it.
“You have lovely eyes,” she said to me, a flirt for an extra penny at the end of the meal, I told myself. But then, when she brought me my food, she said it again, and sat down to talk. We touched on the carnival, and the nature of customers, and the weather, before she was called away by some sailors at the bar.
In the end, I was possessed by some strange beast. As she collected my coins, I bent over and whispered in her ear an invitation to accompany me to the carnival that evening. To my surprise, Agetha agreed, and we made plans to meet at eight o’clock.
I arrived at her home on the dot of eight. I felt overjoyed as she sprung to the door, not making me wait through some guardian of her affairs, making idle chat, and She seemed quite eager that we be on our way.
“I so excited for the carnival!” she exclaimed, exhaling. “I don’t get to go to such things often, no in the company of such a man as yourself.” I noticed that she seemed a little nervous, and I remarked on her flush cheeks. “Don’t mind me – I am in perfect health this evening – but please, we must be on our way…Someone is inside, sleeping off a chill, and I don’t want to cause a disturbance here on the porch.”
Taking my arm, she led me away quickly, down the porch steps and into the dirt road, almost skipping in the direction of the carnival lights.
At the gates, I used my affiliation to breeze through the turnstiles. I let her play every game of chance on the midway, though one could hardly call her an apt gamesman. Every sight or marvel was her’s, however, for the taking. She was quite impressed that I was so respected, and two vendors consulted me about toothaches. I gave each one a fair shake, for Agetha’s eyes, and poked and prodded at the patient’s sore spots. With compassion, I told them each to visit me the following morning and I would fully give relief to their uncomfortable states. This authority seemed to only make her giddier, and drawn easily to laughter. I noticed she looked more alive than any woman I had yet seen.
Agetha had the look of a child, for the first time drinking in the world like an intoxicating potion. She gave the circus, this ratty display of greed, my world, a new shine..
It was after I stopped to purchase some sugar candy for her that I saw the change. Agetha had stopped dead next to a large banner – one I was all too familiar with.
“Come and See the Amazing Display! Bring Your Own Challenges! Come and See the Human Combine!”
I was about to hand her her candy, and explain that the Human Combine was the reason I was here, and she might enjoy the show, if she wanted to go – but I stopped. She had a look on her face of absolute horror.
Transfixed, Agetha was staring open-mouthed at the artist’s rendition of Peter Sieling, dressed in costume, devouring a thick, hardbound book.
“It’s Peter!” she said, half-shout, half-whispered. She put her hand up to her mouth, and was about to swoon.
I let the candy fall to the ground and took her waist.
“Yes, that’s Peter Sieling…do you know him?”
Without a reply, she rushed into the tent. A burly, dirty man with a beard – part of the carnival staff – reached to stop her entrance, but on my signal, let her pass. I followed close behind and Agetha forced her way into the crowd, craning to see a show already in progress.
She had to sit through two other freaks before Sieling made his entrance. During this time, I was going to ask her what put her in such a state, but she seemed unapproachable. I stood back a few paces, but close enough to catch her, should she fall.
With a small fanfare, Sieling, looking surprisingly alive, took the stage and began his act:
“Who here has a challenge?” he shouted at the masses in his gruff voice.
“Here is a button!” shouted a woman.
“No, no – a switch!” shouted a man.
But Sieling waved them off with, “Hasn’t anyone here got anything more difficult?”
Finally, a fat old butcher, his apron still on, covered in blood, held up something wrapped in paper.
“What do you have there?” Sieling asked.
“A pig’s heart,” said the butcher, “rotten from the sun!”
The crowd gave up a mighty cheer, and Sieling raised both arms above his head (a gesture I was familiar with.) With a grand puff, he snatched the package from the butcher’s hands, undid the wrappings, and gave a sniff at the rotten, hardened organ.
And then Sieling froze.
He was a statue, eyes wide.
This was normally the part of the show where he would devour the challenge, no matter what the consequences to his health, then retire with a bow to his tent, and wait for me to examine him, or get drunk, whichever was quickest to transpire.
What was he looking at?
Then I saw – Agetha.
Their eyes, locked in penetrating gaze, told me all I needed to know.
She was his wife.
With a jerk, Agetha wrestled her way back through the crowd and out of the tent. I raced after her, delayed by the butcher, who had repositioned himself behind me to see the Human Combine better. I could sense that Sieling, too, was in motion – not because of any keen hindsight, but because of shouts from the crowd of rage – the pig’s heart uneaten.
Out in the midway, I was able to catch her hand.
“Agetha! Please! You know him, don’t you?” I tried to sound calm, but I was probably just as rattled.
“I thought he was dead! I wished he was dead!” She was flushed and crying, not well at all, on the verge of a fit.
Like a magician, Sieling had appeared at my shoulder, oblivious to the shouts and clamor still coming from within the show tent, spectators spilling out a bit onto the midway, and calling for his return. He looked just as shocked and desperate as Agetha, who I moved in front of as a protector. Agetha, now free of my grip, did not attempt to flee, but turned to face her husband.
“Move away, Doctor,” said Sieling, not looking at me as he spoke.
“No,” I said, an instinct.
Now he met my gaze. His face was contorted in plaintive request, but his eyes were darting around, and I thought I saw him look Agetha up and down, like one would cattle.
“That’s my wife,” Sieling told me, confirming my suspicion. “You shouldn’t interfere.”
“She’s in my charge, Sieling – you’ll not harm her.” I tried to sound brave, but Sieling was actually much larger than me, with thicker arms and a fighter’s history. The memory of the torch-throwing incident came into my mind.
Not in the mood, Sieling simply put his weight into me and pushed me to the dirt of the midway. I landed badly, drawing a laugh from two men under the tent ropes.
Sieling took hold of Agetha, not roughly, but the way one would approach a doe. She was still in fits of crying, but he whispered something softly to her that I couldn’t hear. By the time I got back to my feet, he was tugging her away, still whispering.
The show crowd, now sure the Human Combine was out of the running, was now coming out of the entrance, expressing themselves with swears and throwing vegetables at the vendors. It was not long before I lost Sieling in the throng…
After searching the carnival grounds, I went to the best place for a possible rendezvous – Agetha’s house. Here I was not disappointed, for Sieling must have walked Agetha home and I could see them through the window, speaking by the lamplight in low voices. The scene seemed like a calm one, and I was relieved, but I vowed to watch until Sieling’s departure to make sure there was no eruption.
It proved to be a long wait, and it was well past three in the morning before my patient, my rival, bounded down the stairs of Agetha’s porch and back towards the carnival. Waiting in the bushes, I made sure Agetha went safely to bed, seeing her extinguish the lamp and blowing her a kiss I knew she could not see.
I started for the inn where I had taken up local lodging, anxious for a good night’s sleep.
However, steps from the pathway, I found Sieling waiting behind a hedge. He startled me when he revealed himself, and I stepped back suddenly. He didn’t address me.
“You there,” I said finally, “no need to scare a man like that.”
He still didn’t replay.
“Sieling – it’s me, your doctor.” I was quite uncomfortable with this. His face was a silhouette in the moonlight, and I couldn’t see his expression. “Stand aside,” I ordered. He did not respond. “Stand aside, I say…It’s been a long evening and I need to retire…”
Suddenly, he was upon me – taking me by the shoulder. I stood stock still, and could smell his breath as he whispered in my ear, “I’d be careful, Doctor…You’re talking to a natural wonder.” I didn’t catch his meaning. He switched his grip, and moved to my other ear. “How about if I used these golden teeth of ours to – bite off your ear!!”
He clasped his jaw down on those last words, so close to my ear it rang like a gunshot, and I pulled away, but only so far, still caught by his grip.
“You wouldn’t dare!” I said, mostly to comfort myself, because he just might be that malicious.
Letting me go, he back away, sensing my unease.
“Doctor,” he whispered, “if you interfere between me and my wife…I will chew you up, limb by limb – don’t even bother picturing the pain I could inflict. And you know, you’ve studied me…I’d swallow you whole and wouldn’t even feel sick…except that I might make you come back up again for a colleague of yours to marvel at. ‘Oh,’ this new physician would say, ‘what a challenge you were given tonight! What have we here?’ And I would inform him that this is one good doctor who refused to see the way to be wise…And we’d both remark, ‘What a pity…’ and go about our day.”
Sieling let this threat wash over me.
“Stay out of it,” he finished, and walked away in the direction of the carnival, leaving me alone in the moonlight.
* * *
The next morning I returned in secrecy to my tent. As expected, the two vendors who had complained of pain were waiting. Before rendering my services, I asked if they might do me a favor. Both obliged, for they were now in severe pain. It only took a few moments of reconnaissance for them to gather that Sieling was, indeed, sound asleep in his own tent, and had an empty bottle of whisky by his side. He would probably be unconscious for most of the day, as I had hoped.
After tending to my patients, I headed back to town, knocking on Agetha’s door around two o’clock. Unexpectedly, she didn’t answer – but a toe-headed young girl, no more than ten or eleven, showed me inside.
The little girl was polite as could be, and explained that Agetha was upstairs, and could be down to sit with me in the parlor before the hour, if I would wait. I thanked the house girl, urging her to tell Agetha that my business was pressing. She must have done as I asked, because it was only a few moments before Agetha showed herself in the parlor. She was still in evening wear, and looked quite dreadful.
“Doctor,” she began, “I am so pleased that you have come to call. After last night, I imagined you didn’t think I was worth all this trouble.”
“On the contrary,” I assured her. “No trouble at all.”
She offered me a seat at the parlor table, and sat opposite me, trying to look bright.
“I can guess your situation,” I told her. “The man who is my primary patient at the carnival, Peter Sieling, is also your husband. He is the one you left behind in another town all those years ago.” I paused, forming my words carefully. “I know what kind of man Peter Sieling is, and I find it quite justified that you did what you did. He is a drunkard, a brawler – quite low, although he is of some medical interest. It is sad that my association with you has brought him back into your life, but, as I’m sure you know, it wasn’t a pre-planned affair.”
She leapt at this. “Oh, of course, Doctor. I didn’t think you were in any way – “
I waved her off. “Good, good. I want you to think of me as your friend in this matter. I have only your best interests at heart. That’s why I’m here today. Your husband spoke to you at length last night – I am sorry to say, but I watched you through your window. I wanted to make sure he wasn’t violent.” She smiled at me for this, and I felt reinvigorated. “To the point…yes…I need to know what was said. I can assure you, it is only in your best interests that you tell me, and I will keep it secret, if you wish.”
She seemed hesitant at first, but was soon out with it. Sieling was going to quit the carnival after this evening’s performance. Now that he had found Agetha again, he was not moving on to the next town, but, with assurances, he was going to fulfill his duty as her husband, and share her house and her bed. I was shocked at this grave news, and I questioned her further about Sieling’s temperament.
“It’s not for me that I worry,” she said. “But for my daughter.”
Then I remembered, the house girl – the toe-headed youngster – was in fact Peter Sieling’s daughter.
“Peter wanted to see Kelsie last night,” she said, “but I would not allow it because of her slight fever. But this morning she is fully recovered, and quite sad that she missed the carnival. She doesn’t know that her father has returned – it would be unbearable news to her, worse than to my own ears.”
“Could you leave today?” I asked.
But Agetha had every reason to stay. Kelsie, only ten after all, had friends. Then there was this plain but lovely house, and Agetha’s job at the tavern. This was her life, and Peter Sieling was not to be allowed back in it.
“Now I am going to hear Kelsie all this day, tugging at my skirt, begging to let her go to the carnival! But how can I, when she will learn the horrible, horrible state of things? Her father, returned, purporting to be better, but I know he is not!”
“He most certainly is not,” I concurred, but immediately regretted saying so, since it gave the poor woman no relief.
“Oh, is there no way out, Doctor? Are Kelsie and I doomed to repeat our past circumstance? Is there nothing that can be done?”
Agetha practically threw herself at my knees, and my heart went out to her and her child like no other in my lifetime. She had elevated herself in my eyes to something akin to a saint – an angel, not merely a patient, a problem to solve.
I spoke to her with comfort, saying that I would find a way out of this corner, but she must trust me fully, and not ask a lot of questions. She quickly agreed, placing all plans in “my learned brain,” and thus left me alone in the parlor to think the matter out.
I admit that I felt a constraint to come up with something brilliant as quickly as possible, not only because I feared Sieling waking and seeking me out, but also because I could hear occasional pacing outside of the parlor door – Agetha, I was sure, eagerly waiting a verdict.
Going to the window, I saw the daughter, Kelsie, at play in the yard, and I knew the course I must take. Of course! It was so righteous a plan, so just, so true, that I felt God blessing me with the details! I called Agetha back in to the parlor.
“You must let Kelsie come with me to the carnival,” I told her. “Tonight.”
“No, she will see her father – “ she began in protest.
But I put my finger to her lips and smiled. “No, dear child,” I continued, soothing, “I told you that you must trust me…It is a simple solution to a complex problem…but first, you must tell me…how many years have you been away?”
Not seeing the importance, Agetha furrowed her brow and said, “Six years.”
“Good,” I nodded, kissing her forehead. “Good.”
* * *
Back at the inn, I said a quick hello to my fellow boarders before racing upstairs to my room. There I uncovered my medical bag – a catch-all of potions and pharmaceuticals, remedies and instruments suitable to my profession. Using my extensive knowledge of toxins and anti-toxins, I threw together an elixir that was sure to do what I intended. I carefully mixed the ingredients over my wash basin, combining with pistol and mortar something rarely used in my profession – a poison.
It was merely an ounce, but it would do.
Once made, I tucked the vial into my waistcoat pocket and counted the hours until the start of the carnival.
At seven o’clock, I called on Kelsie at Agetha’s house. According to my instructions, Agetha had already prepped the child with my name and status, saying that I was a representative of the carnival, and, by accompanying me to the sight, the child would have free reign over all she wanted. The child was so excited when I arrived, she could hardly contain herself, hugging me with thanks like a great, favorite uncle, even though she had only laid eyes on me once.
Agetha, who looked very worried, and having no knowledge of my plan was right in being of that mind. She gave me a quick kiss before departure. On Kelsie, she doted for a moment more, making sure she had a shawl and hat, in case the evening turned cold. I smiled as I waved goodbye, giving a wink to the lovely woman.
On route to the affair, I learned more about Kelsie, whose excitement mirrored her mother’s the previous night. I had hopes that this evening would turn out better. For Kelsie was a charming youth, one any father would be proud of, and I felt her glow contagious – so light, by the time we arrived at the gates, I had momentarily forgotten the serious business I was there to attend to.
As I promised, I gave Kelsie full run of the place, and she, like her mother, took advantage. It was very pleasant to watch – all that youth, all that promise. It made me momentarily sad that I had not had a child of my own.
When Kelsie was on the carousel, I picked a lovely red flower from the ground. I dusted it off, making it free of leaves and thorns. Then, gently, I removed the poison vial from my waistcoat. Parting the petals with my index finger, I poured almost all of the contents into the pistol, letting it dry, and then replacing the vial back into my clothing.
Kelsie, clamoring for a second spin on the carousel, now fully lit with candles, for the evening was hard upon us, raced to my leg, laughing.
“No, no…” I said. “Here, put your shawl on, the air is a little chilly, and you just recovering from being ill.” She did as I instructed, but not without resistance. To make it easier, I pulled out the red flower. “Here – look what I found in the field. Let me place it in your hair.” I tucked the stem into her braid, and she seemed to grow immediately fond of it, and thanked me. If she only knew what it contained.
Again, she begged for another go on the carousel.
“I know something better…would you like to see a show?”
She nodded, quickly forgetting the rides, and I led her by the hand towards the back of the field – towards the oddity tent.
“Now, some of these people may frighten you, but I assure you they’re all quite nice, for they are all my patients and I know them – and their teeth – quite well.” I could tell she was getting nervous when she passed the renditions of the freaks, one to each panel of the tent, but I kept assuring here that it was nothing to be afraid of, and that could never happen to her. Finally, she came upon the likeness of “the Human Combine” – her father, Peter Sieling.
As I had hoped, she did not recognize him. After all, it had been six whole years…
Once inside the tent, I escorted her to the very front of the stage, so she could have the best possible sight. She was so much smaller than the crowd, the show would have been unendurable without a proper view.
Besides, she needed to be seen.
As the first freaks took the stage, Kelsie was laughing, but not with derision, but simply like a child would laugh at such things. As the eighth and ninth specimens strutted before her, she had become quite accustomed to the parade, and seemed to be enjoying herself immensely. I knew it was getting close to the Human Combine’s big entrance, so between the tenth and eleventh freaks, I whispered in Kelsie’s ear, “Give the Human Combine your flower to eat – it will be quite a gas!”
Then she did something unexpected, she cupped her hand over the flower, pressing it to her head. “No, I want to keep it,” she said.
“I’ll get you another,” I said.
“But I like this one.”
“But if you give it to the performer, he will do a trick for you.”
“But I want to keep it.”
The eleventh freak was almost done.
“No,” I urged. “Please, for this old doctor. I’ll get you another.” I said these last words with conviction, slowly so she could hear over the crowd. Then, as she turned again to the stage, I backed away into the crowd so I was no longer directly behind the daughter of Peter Sieling. He could not see us together. My hope was that Kelsie wouldn’t turn ‘round, and see that I had left her – then maybe retreating from the stage herself to be by my side.
— but I had no more time to worry, because Sieling had taken the platform!
Almost immediately, he took a bead on me – the venom swelled, and I curled up my lip at him, unable to hide my feelings. He took the crowd’s cheering as some sort of victory over me personally, and gestured that the room should give him even more. Everyone went wild with Sieling’s cry: “Who here has brought me a challenge?”
Voices went up and there were the most outrageous things imaginable thrust at the performer.
I looked through the crowd at Kelsie, who stood watching, the red flower still in her hair.
“These are nothing new!” shouted Sieling. “Who has brought me a real challenge?”
Again, more cries – the stamping of feet, a restless explosion of attention.
Kelsie still didn’t move. She had to hold up the flower for Sieling to see! He wouldn’t just pluck it out of her hair!
Again, Sieling looked at me – as if to say, “Watch me, good doctor!” and he grabbed the nearest challenge, a glass bottle, and bit into it without hesitation. Shards rained on the stage, but Sieling was only bleeding from a small cut on his lip, impervious to all the other hazards.
“Another!” he screamed, reaching into the crowd.
This time he was handed a live chicken, a barnyard runt, nothing of real value. With a scoff, Sieling took a chomp out of the bird’s hide, spitting feathers out into the crowd and wiping away the blood that shot forth like a spigot.
“Another!” he cried.
Kelsie was still motionless, pushed up against the stage.
But then, slowly, she reached back a long, pale grip – as if she was simply running her hands through her beautiful toe-hair – and snatched the red flower from it’s perch. She held it out straight at the end of her arm for Sieling to see.
Sieling caught the gesture immediately. He made a prideful strut across the stage in her direction, puffing a “ho ho ho” as he did so.
…and when he reached out to take the offering from the little girl’s hand, he stopped…he stared right into Kelsie’s face. For a moment, I grew aware that Sieling’s expression was one of recognition. Six years! Did I think that was enough time for a man to forget the face of his own daughter? I was a fool! A miserable fool!
I moved forward a few paces in the crowd, again, feeling like my services as protector were in need –
But then Sieling kept his grip, and easing back on his haunches, lifted the red flower into the air. With the applause booming in the tent, Sieling craned his neck back, opened his mouth to its fullest capacity, and chewed the flower down like a machine – swallowing every morsel.
The deed was done. I was a murderer.
The crowd could not have risen to any higher pitch, and Sieling gave a offish bow before leaving the stage, doomed.
* * *
I walked Kelsie home.
She was starting to wind down now, tired after the Human Combine’s harangue, but still a buzz with memories. When we were nearly to her house, I took Kelsie in confidence and begged her, for my sake, not to tell her mother about seeing the freakshow. Such things did not set well with mothers. Even though I had no objection, mothers were different and that was that. Kelsie agreed.
Agetha came to the door, even before we knocked, with a worried look on her face. But soon, Kelsie was listing each splendid highlight of the carnival for her mother and everything seemed quite all right. After about fifteen minutes of this, it was decided that the child should go to bed. Agetha asked that I wait in the parlor.
When she returned, her first words were, “Is Peter going to be here soon?”
“I think not,” I answered, and smiled.
“What’s happened?” she asked.
I paused. Looking my most somber, I said, “Agetha, the deed is done. Your trust in me has been wisely given, and Peter Sieling should no longer be a part of your troubles. I only ask that you do not bother me for the details. It was a matter for men, and, although not wholly unsavory, it would not be for you to hear, and dwell upon. Just know that the deed is done, and you are free.”
She raced into my arms and hugged me with great aplomb. I felt very warm inside and proud to have carried the matter out in good conscience.
“Will you come back?” she asked, letting go of me and laughing.
“When? Tonight? After the carnival?”
“Tonight, tomorrow…all the rest of the tomorrows…” she said.
I smiled and raised my brow. “Do I understand your wishes, dear lady? Do you wish me to stay?”
“Yes…” she said, giving my arm another squeeze. “Stay.”
I left her with nothing more than a kiss on the cheek and a promise to return the next morning, once I had given my notice to my employers. Besides, with Sieling done away with, my casework, sadly, was over. However, what I had not gained for medicine, I had certainly advanced for Agetha, Kelsie, and my own foolish self.
Except that Peter Sieling was not dead.
When I walked back to the field, back to the tents, I immediately heard him calling for me.
I had no doubt it was him, even from a distance. His odious voice carried. He was obviously in devilish spirits, and his venom was directed…at me. With caution, I approached the back field where his tent was. The flap was shut but he was tossing things around inside, and I could see his shadow in the lamplight. He was very much alive.
I approached. I had to find out what had gone wrong with my plan. If he wasn’t poisoned, then by no means could he suspect me of any wrongdoing. I had done as he had asked – so he thought – and stayed out of his affairs. He did, however, sound full of venom, rapid – and quite ill.
Just when I was deciding whether or not I should enter the tent, by myself or with a few gruff tentpolesmen, Sieling burst out of the front flap and saw me immediately. I took a step back.
“Doctor, didn’t you hear me calling you?” he sounded winded, pathetic.
“Just now,” I said.
“Please, come inside…I feel ill…” And he turned back, going again into his tent. He obviously didn’t suspect me, so I followed.
Inside, he flopped down on his cot like a fish, undoing his shirt for examination.
“Doctor, something’s wrong with me – I feel all knotted up inside.” And it was true, he looked quite stricken.
I kneeled by his cot, reaching for him. “Well, you should have expected something like this would happen eventually. I saw your show – uncooked poultry is the cause of many malignancies.” I tried to look concerned as I felt his forehead for fever. “Pity I don’t have my bag – it’s back at the inn,” I said. “How long have you been like this?”
He struggled to speak. “Since…since…” I moved closer, glad the end was near. And the he finished – like a whipcrack, spiteful and to the point: “Since my daughter gave me a poison flower!”
With this last, he was fully alive, clasping his hands around my throat and wrestling me to the tent floor. I tried to wriggle out of his grip, flailing like a hooked worm, but he was too strong. He had leverage on me, and I had no advantage.
“Did you think I wouldn’t recognize her?” he spat at me. “She has my eyes – my own eyes!” Still holding me in his hairy right hand, he reached into his shirt pocket, pulling out the very red flower I watched him eat on stage! “Do you think I don’t pick up a thing or two from the magicians in the circus, doctor? A little slight of hand can go very far!”
“But I saw you,” I said. “You – “
“You thought you saw me!” Tossing the red flower aside, he put both hands around my neck and I knew for sure I was finished — but, at the last moment, he let up. “I told you to mind your own affairs, so now I will do what I promised.” He leaned into me, and, without restraint, sunk his eye-teeth into my ear and pulled away. Between his bite, he had my left earlobe, ripped free and spit out across the tent.
I writhed in pain, knocking a small chest off the table with my feet. He reached in for another bite –
But then – a miracle!
It must have been knocked over in the struggle, but the gas lamp had caught Sieling’s bed on fire. Witnessing, Sieling loosened his grip enough for me to struggle free while he tried to throw a blanket over the spilled and burning oil.
It was only another moment when the sides of the tent burst into bright orange ribbons, collapsing quickly over all Sieling clothes and whisky stash. It seemed like I was a very slug, slow and mud-covered, bloodied from the fight, but I was able to crawl out, unhindered, into the night and into the open compound.
Workers came running to put out the fire, before it spread to the other tents. A few took note of me, standing there, bleeding all over my greatcoat, but were too busy moving the horses away to pay me much mind. I stumbled into the thicket of the field and escaped into the night, back to my lodgings in the city
I boarded the door with the night table, wishing at that moment that I had a firearm. I couldn’t be sure Sieling was trapped in the tent long enough to die. I couldn’t be sure of anything. I was also hoping the innkeeper didn’t note how badly I looked as I dashed past him and up to my room.
After a few hours, I grew calmer, and even though I didn’t think it possible, I fell into a deep sleep…
* * *
The next morning, I cleaned myself up – which took some doing. Half expecting to find the local constabulary waiting for me downstairs, I went to join the other boarders at breakfast. News of the fire reached me before I even entered the room. The innkeeper and his lodgers were feverishly discussing yesternight’s fire at the carnival.
Apparently, although damage was minor, a performer had been killed. They were all sad that at this horrible fate for the best act they had seen on the midway…
Darren Callahan lives in Chicago. His novel “City of Human Remains” is published on Fiction365, and can be read in its entirety here.
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