Dr. Dominic Jardine lifted the cover from an oblong tray to reveal two baked Cornish hens, their skins golden and slick with butter. He stabbed one with a fork and placed it on Anthony Moretti’s plate; the second he lifted onto his own. He then served salt-potatoes, boiled yellow corn, green beans, and thick rye bread with honey.
“Enjoy,” Dr. Jardine said as he pierced his hen’s thigh.
“Very good,” Anthony said, tasting a small red potato.
Dr. Jardine poured a glass of wine. “Try this,” he said.
“To the experiment, then,” Anthony toasted, and sipped the wine.
Dr. Jardine was youngish looking, thin and sinewy, with a full beard, and when he got excited, his cheeks flushed. “The data from our experiment will prove with certainty that the beast in mankind is normal; that tendencies like kindness or even empathy hinder human progress.”
“That’s where you and I differ,” Anthony said. “That’s why I volunteered. I think you might be wrong. By the way, what manner of experiment do you plan?”
Dr. Jardine refilled Anthony’s wine glass. Then he lifted his glass of water. “I will explain,” he said. “But first, a toast. To Anthony Moretti. May your life bring value to others.”
“Thank you, sir.”
As Anthony chewed another piece of the buttery hen, he began to feel an unusual lightness, not inebriation, but very relaxing. He finished his wine. Dr. Jardine refilled the glass and stared at Anthony. Anthony felt mildly self-conscious, so he drank more wine, smiling as he did. When Anthony placed his glass on the table, his arm felt as if it had fallen asleep, and the glass teetered and clanked against the dish before it settled.
“Strange,” he said, “my muscles feel mushy.”
“That’s good,” Dr. Jardine said. “You have consumed three glasses of wine containing pancuronium bromide, a drug which will relax your muscles but keep you awake. It’s a derivative of curare, which some tribes in South America use to immobilize monkeys. I’m pleased you didn’t eat too much, since surgery is less dangerous when the stomach is empty.”
“Surgery?” Anthony said.
Dr. Jardine got up. “Excuse me a moment.” He dropped his napkin on the table and left the room.
Anthony wanted to ask what surgery, but he could not speak. He tried to get up; yet when he pushed his feet against the floor, he hardly felt them. Oddly, his eyes worked. He noticed a small crack in the plaster above the window, and he detected tiny random strands of green and orange laced within the dull umber of the drapes.
Dr. Jardine returned to the room wheeling a gurney. “Come along, Mr. Moretti,” he said. “We have work.” He lifted Anthony off the chair and eased him onto the gurney. Dr. Jardine pushed the gurney out of the dining area and through the dreary hallway to its end. They entered an elevator and rode down. They exited into a room full of cages.
“Some of my animals. The rats eat meat. And the vampire bats drink blood,” Dr. Jardine said, pointing out two of the specimens. “How do I know, Anthony, that we men are, by nature, animals such as these? Think about it. We profess a love of nature as we mutilate and destroy it; we eschew the commandment of peace to engage in constant war.” He looked toward the ceiling, as if to gather his thoughts. “Philosophers and psychologists suggest that the depravity of mankind is expressed in sin. Sin engenders guilt.” Dr. Jardine leaned down to Anthony’s face. “There is no sin without guilt, Anthony, and I think we can eliminate guilt. Our experiment will prove that when we accept the true animal nature of our human state, we eliminate the guilt of trying to be something other than what we are. Guilt destroys lives, and that’s what our experiment is about.”
Anthony agreed with the fact that humans share a beast-like attitude toward survival and territorial aggression. He disagreed with Dr. Jardine’s conclusion regarding guilt. For Anthony, guilt represented a moral propriety absent in lesser forms. He felt a grave discomfort that he could not express this distinction.
Dr. Jardine pushed the gurney through two swinging doors into a brightly lit operating room. He strapped Anthony’s arms to the side of the gurney. “We don’t like to admit it, Anthony, but survival is an ongoing, violent, evolutionary process which sharpens our animal instincts. Reason reveals this. My experiment will record the loss of your morality and the natural rise of your instinctual aggression. I’m going to cut off your legs. That way, you must survive in an alien environment without locomotion.”
Dr. Jardine pushed the gurney to the far end of the room and stopped in front of a large steel door. “This will be your new home, Mr. Moretti.” He flicked a light switch and pulled the heavy door open. “Look inside. It might help you later.” Beyond the door, in shadowed simplicity, Anthony looked into a stern, square room with a high ceiling. “The walls are masonry smoothed over with plaster and painted with epoxy,” Dr. Jardine explained. “In the far corner you will find a stainless steel chemical toilet. No other comforts. In the opposite corner, attached to the ceiling, bat boxes. And on the floor in the other corner, a rodent run made from oak.”
The thick metal door closed with a thud. “No way to open this from the inside, and when it closes, the lock automatically sets.”
Dr. Jardine guided the gurney back to the operating area and pushed a stainless steel tray to the side of the gurney. Anthony observed scalpels and a bone saw, string, a suture-hook, and a pair of needle-nose pliers. The proximity of these instruments produced a dense fear, as if a vague, unknowable horror reclined upon him.
The doctor inspected a scalpel. An icy glint reflected along its brilliant edge. When he replaced it, the steel echo reverberated in Anthony’s ear like a proclamation. He struggled with disbelief; he could not convince himself that Dr. Jardine intended to amputate his legs.
Dr. Jardine took a syringe and pushed the needle into the vein in Anthony’s forearm to inject Midazolam. Though he could not move, Anthony felt the smooth silver of the needle and the rush of the hot drug as it swirled into the flow of his blood. Dr. Jardine removed the tube and left the needle taped in place.
“Furthermore, I’m going to pull your eyes from their sockets and sever the retinas. I’ll replace the eyes, but of course you’ll be blind.”
He placed the tube end of an IV onto the needle. “When you awaken,” he said, “you will find your life devoid of ordinary pleasures. I shall keep a journal of your descent, perhaps to insanity, perhaps to suicide. By mapping the stages of your despair, anger, and violence, I shall have proof of the intrinsic path of degeneracy that all humans endure. Once the world recognizes the simple elegance of this truth, it can let go of its psychological props of charity and mercy, and return without guilt to the natural behaviors of survival. We can then eliminate inferiors without remorse and release the full efficiency of evolutionary imperatives.”
As Anthony felt himself slipping into sleep, he heard Dr. Jardine say, “Think of it, Mr. Moretti, you are about to become part of history.”
* * * * *
When Anthony awoke, he could not see, but he felt gauze taped over his eyes, and he felt the needle, a sharp iron invasion in his arm. His muscles remained out of his command, and when he tried to call for help, his throat hurt too much to speak.
Anthony heard Dr. Jardine enter and walk to the side of the hospital bed. He lowered the safety bar, pulled the sheet away from Anthony, and felt the stitching along the skin-flap at the stubs of his legs. “Skin folds look good. Stitches holding.”
Anthony heard Dr. Jardine’s clear, analytical voice. He wondered if his legs were really gone. And his vision. He heard the pen encode the paper of Dr. Jardine’s notebook. He felt the quick pulsation of Midazolam roil into his bloodstream as Dr. Jardine injected more of the drug.
“Sleep now, Anthony. I’ll keep you drugged and fed through these tubes until your surgeries heal. Want you to be fully functioning as we progress further into the experiment.”
Anthony listened to the footsteps receding and to the door closing, and he felt blackness envelop him, soundless except for his own breathing. The empty room encased him, as if he were suffocating within the cruel confines of a claustrophobic tomb.
In his continuous drugged state, Anthony knew neither days nor weeks, only the protracted gloom of black isolation. Eventually, Dr. Jardine removed the bandages from his stubs and his eyes. Anthony’s mind hovered in opiated confusion, and his body remained out of his control, but he heard Dr. Jardine speak. “Mr. Moretti,” he declared, “you have healed enough to begin the next phase of the experiment.” Dr. Jardine injected Midazolam, and Anthony slept again.
* * * * *
When he awoke, Anthony opened his eyes to blackness. He blinked several times and squeezed his eyelids, but the only light he perceived happened behind the lids in that vague and unsettling place somewhere in the brain where imagination and rational thought collide in odd shades of gray with flashing shards of silver and blue.
He felt for the bedrails, but discovered that he now lay on a blunt mattress on a bare concrete floor, his torso covered with a bed sheet, but no pillow for his head. He had expected a scientific experiment of a benign nature, perhaps an animal experiment with note-taking and evaluations; thus, because of his predicament, blind, legless, and puzzled beyond misery, he cried. Tears wet his face and his fingers, for he held his head in his hands, though they provided no comfort.
Exhausted, he slept. He did not mean to sleep; weariness momentarily overcame grief.
When he awoke to the blackness and the silence, he listened around the room at the stillness, searching for the motion of sound in much the same way he would have looked around a room with eyes. He visualized in his mind the ear’s ability to capture the activity of sound. He might never have discovered this odd talent of the ear if he were not blind. This thought, making him aware of his blindness, again brought depression.
“Sightless and legless,” he said, and the noise of his voice shocked him. “I can talk,” he said, hearing the words in his ears and within his head at the same time. The sound proved too intense, however, so he spoke no more.
He sat up and pushed the sheet away. He reached gently forward, letting the tips of his fingers explore the rivets of stitch marks along the stubs of his legs. He rubbed the tiny hairs of his thighs, soft to his fingers, and he could feel the curled tip end of each. Yet the skin stretched across the amputations felt smooth, not tender, but odd in texture, like fish skin after the scales have been scraped off. As he felt around the nub of his legs, he felt his toes at the same time. He felt an irritating itch between his toes, tormenting and relentless. He wondered what bodily device could measure an itch that doesn’t exist. His legs were gone; his toes were gone. How could he feel the itch of a ghost? Were his toes really gone? His legs? He fell into a quagmire of uncertainty, no longer confident of reality. He lay back; his arms flopped against the mattress. “What shall become of me?”
Dr. Jardine entered the room. “Mr. Moretti, you’re healing well. I hope you’ve noticed the splendid work I did on your legs.”
“Why have you violated me?”
Dr. Jardine wrote this in his notebook.
“How long have I been here? How long must I remain?” Anthony did not know that nearly two months had passed since the awful surgeries. The drug-induced sleeps and the weary exhaustion of isolation impaired all ability to interpret time.
Dr. Jardine wrote but said nothing.
“Please,” Anthony said. “Talk with me.” He wanted companionship. He needed it.
“I will talk, of course, Mr. Moretti, but we cannot engage in conversation. That would spoil the experiment. I’ll make a note of your confusion and anxiety, and given your excellent progress, I will introduce some new components. From now on, I will pass your food through the small slip-space in the door. That will limit our exposure to one another. I will also let a few laboratory pets in for you. You may befriend them.”
Dr. Jardine placed the food try on the floor. He paused at the door. “Think of it, Mr. Moretti, one day you will be as famous as Pavlov’s dogs.”
The blackness of Anthony’s spirit exhausted him, and in a paralysis of trepidation, he held himself like a baby.
* * * * *
His nose caught the slight puddle of chicken blood at the bottom of a metal plate. He smelled water in a plastic cup, and he detected the nectar-scent of peaches from a can. He detested these smells. They reminded him that he could not see, that he could not walk to a table and sit on a chair to enjoy his food.
The aroma of the chicken clung to the back of his throat, and saliva rose on his tongue. “Maybe I should eat,” he thought. He leaned across the mattress and felt for the chicken. He removed the skin and licked the meat. “Full of something,” he thought. “Probably make me sleep.” Indeed, Dr. Jardine had rubbed a mixture of parsley and Midazolam into the chicken flesh. Within minutes after he finished eating, Anthony’s mind surrendered to sleep.
He was not conscious of dreaming. In fact, when he awoke, sometime later, he wondered why he did not dream. As he thought this, he heard the shy breeze of the door opening. “What is it?” he demanded. He received no answer, only the deep thud of the lock as the door closed. Perplexed and annoyed, he pushed himself up to a sitting position. His arms had grown weak. He touched the thin veins along his forearm. Even his fingers felt thinner.
Suddenly, Anthony heard tiny noises behind him, sounds he had not heard before, like the rapid tapping of a pencil point pulled across a grate. He pointed his ear at the sound. Yet, he heard nothing more, and the black silence chilled him. His skin tingled with fear. He could not determine exactly what, but some new thing had entered the room, and it was alive. He twisted to re-position. Anthony listened around the room. Though he detected no further sound, he knew some creature now haunted his domain, and his imagination made the creature frightening.
Suddenly, he heard the scratch of nails scurrying along the floor. He leaned toward the sound, but as he turned, a similar scratching came from behind him. Two beasts. Anthony stiffened, disoriented and unsettled. Again he heard movement, this time closer to him, a small sound, like quick feet across wax. He sat straight, preparing himself for an assault which did not come. Instead, the tiny noise moved closer until it reached the side of his bed and the food dish clanked. He leaned his hand toward the dish. He felt fur, but the creature moved quickly and bit Anthony’s finger. The pain drove him to the other side of the mattress.
“What are you?” he cried.
His finger bled. He felt more pain than the tiny bite required, for the unknown held more power over his mind than a bloody fingertip. The tin plate continued to jiggle with the sound of animals feasting, both creatures obviously at work. The slight scratches and the padded movement could possibly mean rodents. For what purpose did Dr. Jardine release them? To haunt him even more? To destroy him with fear?
Anthony listened in immovable foreboding as the lab rats ate what remained of his rations. Finally, they stopped, and he heard them scamper into the darkness. He waited until silence again covered him. Only then, and with all caution, did he stretch his fingers to all four corners and along every inch of the surface to make certain the mattress was safe. Finally, momentarily assured, he fell backwards, and, exhausted, he plunged into a long loneliness of exasperation.
Anthony awoke later to the slow hinge gasp of the door opening.
“Are you awake?” Dr. Jardine asked. He stopped about five feet from the bed. Dr. Jardine’s shoes slide against the concrete. “Some grease on the floor,” he said.
“What did you release in here?” Anthony demanded.
Dr. Jardine moved closer, and Anthony heard his voice alongside the mattress.
“Two lab rats that eat meat. At the doorway, I have two vampire bats in a cage. I’ll release them when I leave.”
“Why?” Anthony whimpered.
Dr. Jardine noted Anthony’s vocal anguish on the chart.
“Research, Mr. Moretti. Components of our study. It is in the utility of complications that we discover meaning in our behaviors. You might like to know about your companions. The laboratory white rat is an albino strain of the brown rat, noted for spreading typhus and rabies. Rats are like bears. They eat anything. The bats are of the variety desmodus rotundus. Did you know that each night they drink about half their body weight in blood? If they don’t find blood for three nights in a row, they die. Normally, they drink the blood of horses or cows, but lacking these, they will accept humans. Of course, they don’t drink a lot of blood, and they’re so agile they can sometimes drink for thirty minutes without waking a sleeping donor.”
“What you have done to me has nothing to do with science. Are you mad, like they say?”
Anthony heard the slight grate of Dr. Jardine’s teeth and a tense exhale through the nostrils. “All genius is mistaken for madness, Mr. Moretti. What you do not comprehend, others will. The condition of your body, the complexities of your moods, and the introduction of beasts into your environment will provide ample material for study. We shall learn what qualities of animal heritage you will invite and what qualities will emerge unbidden.”
He went to the door. Anthony heard a small piece of wood move and the gentle ease of bat wings as a flutter of air lifted them up and around the room.
“Soon you will discover there is no great, mysterious purpose to your life, Mr. Moretti. But before you make that discovery you will become like the animals and kill to survive, not for meaning, only to survive. Or they will kill you,” he said, pulling the door shut.
The bats swooshed and dove, turned and glided around the room, exploring the square, black cave. Anthony could not hear their calls, but he felt the low vibrations of their chatter against the hairs of his ears. He held his head still and followed the disturbances of air their flights caused. Soon they settled, silent and motionless, and Anthony could not tell if they recognized the box at the ceiling as similar to the one in their laboratory cage. The rats, perhaps excited by the bats, lifted their noses, and their whiskers twitched.
Anthony sat in the center of a dense entombment, buried with flesh-eating creatures whose diet now included him, but even a blind, legless man must sleep, and eventually, he grew fatigued. He did not want to sleep. He did not trust such luxury. Yet, exhaustion mingled with despair, and his body gave way to its needs.
* * * * *
For once, he dreamed. He was not aware of images, but rather of a euphoric peacefulness, almost sweet. He felt restful, like one feels at the edge of the ocean lying on hot sand. He rolled to his side and felt a warm drop of liquid slide along his neck. He reached to touch it, but instead felt the fur cover of rubbery bat skin. Without thought, he grabbed the bat by one wing, and the creature attempted to flee, pulling and crying against the entrapment.
He threw the creature, after he pulled its soft, tiny head away from its body. He threw the head, too, both arms violent, both hands quick and precise. The scuttle lasted only moments, and the awful quiet followed. Then, in the background, the rodents, drawn to blood, ate, and the crunch of bat bones haunted Anthony like the erratic drip of rain into a rusty drain, eating away at the metal, eating away at his brain.
Anthony realized in the emptiness of the moment that he had killed a living thing, that he had charged payment for his own blood and the cost was life. A sense of disproportion entered him, and recognizing the power of his action, he realized he could assume supremacy over a lesser being or he could reconcile the equality of life by choosing to never kill again.
He knew both options could reward him. Superiority filled his ego, set him apart, satisfied his survival-driven lust, thus supporting Dr. Jardine’s premise that humankind is separated from the beasts not by morality but by intellect, the instinct to kill supported by an awareness of intent.
The choice not to kill, that ambivalent choice, that choice which seems contrary to nature could bind him to nature, offer him the solace of intimacy, a sharing of self which diminishes the self and which simultaneously forges it and makes it strong.
* * * * *
Time without companionship fostered the dilemma of thought, and with it, memory. Anthony recalled a childhood summer he spent with his grandfather. The old man lived in a small cabin on the edge of a meadow, up the hill from a cold mountain lake. The treeline held the woods within, and a path through them led to a rocky beach. Once he found the remains of a snapping turtle on the shore. He kicked it over to discover the undulations of white maggots in an eating frenzy. The stench hung in his nostrils like hooks, and the image in his mind emphasized the gruesome celebration of life within carrion.
What would become of him? Would his life amount to nothing more than maggot fodder, a legless moment in the history of uncaring time, passing unknown into the next generation of rats or bats?
The remaining bat interrupted his thoughts. It glided with speed and grace, making sound captured only in the slightest movement of air. Anthony realized it was headed directly for him. He took a deep breath and held as still as a blanket, and the bat landed next to his ear. It walked with its wings as crutches, and eased its furry belly against Anthony’s neck. With neither sound nor pain, its razor teeth cut a single slit through his skin, and it began to lick tiny red droplets of Anthony’s blood, its quick tongue almost woeful in its tenderness.
Anthony felt as if he might make up for his mistake in killing the first bat, and the question of this possibility kept him still. The bat needed to eat, and Anthony accepted the odd position of provider with narcissistic contentment. Eventually the bat nearly collapsed, gorged with blood, and as he felt the sudden stop in feeding, Anthony curled his hand around the animal and placed it on his stomach. The beast lay still, satiated. Its tiny heart beat reverberated against Anthony’s groin, and in that moment of ecstatic union, Anthony felt forgiven. He let the bat rest, its belly full, its sense of loss for its mate dissipated, at least for now.
The time in solitude acted to increase for Anthony the duration of emotional experiences, and this moment of joy coalesced into near tranquility. Anthony wondered if he could experience intimacy, forgiveness, and murder within the same frame of reference. Could he, for example, accept the violence of survival and the imperative of kinship as linked components of humanness? Burdened by this moment of mystical uncertainty and exhausted by the charity of bloody communion, he fell asleep.
* * * * *
He awoke to the furious squeaks of irritated juveniles. How many litters of rats had been born? Four? Five? Each one with 10 to 12 pups. Not all lived, of course, but he wondered how many new lives now existed within the limited sphere of his influence. And, he wondered, how many of those lives were as important as his own?
The noise of the rodent dispute continued, and he presumed that they argued over food. Dr. Jardine supplied adequate sustenance for Anthony only. Surely, he knew the rats would multiply. What about them? What exactly did Dr. Jardine expect? Was his experiment rigged by introducing over-population in order to give him the results he required?
These questions demanded answers, but Anthony realized that he could not know the mind of another man. Thus, he decided to change the object of his questions. In a fit of insight, he asked himself – what do I want from this experiment? – shall I murder rats as I murdered the bat? – or shall I sacrifice something for their survival? – what shall that something entail? – and what, he pondered, what profound reality lurks within the knotty option of sacrifice?
The power of intense thought obviated, momentarily, all physical sensations, and Anthony did not notice the disturbance at his finger until it became an acute pain. He grabbed the young rat. The heart of the beast beat against Anthony’s finger with the excited rhythm of a bird but with the compact denseness of an opossum or a badger.
“You’re hungry,” he said. He held the creature around its stomach, its legs struggling between his fingers. The society Anthony had managed with the beasts included some recognition of individuals by weight and texture. “I don’t know you,” he said to this one. Anthony squeezed the adolescent. His fingers felt powerful. Forced to maneuver around the room using his arms as his legs, the strength in Anthony’s torso had increased. From his fingers to his stomach, the muscles of his upper body now contained their normal health and the added strength of his missing legs.
“I could squash you,” he said. “But I will not. I have the freedom to choose my sins, and I will not kill you.”
Anthony set the animal on the mattress and placed his bleeding finger near its hungry mouth. The rat’s whiskers twitched at the side of Anthony’s finger, the palpitations manifesting its eager hunger. When it bit, the sensation of listening to his flesh intrigued Anthony, and the sting of the bite intensified with the sound of muscle tearing. The rat did not lick the blood. Instead, it bit again, its agile teeth sliding off Anthony’s nail before shearing another small mouthful. Anthony could not, at that moment, distinguish sentiment from analysis, for all of his brain activity seemed engaged in managing the pain of allowing another creature to eat part of his body.
The rat finally scampered away, and Anthony tore a corner of his ragged shirt and knotted it into a bandage for his finger. He cinched the cloth until the tightness of it overwhelmed the throbbing of his nerves. He felt peaceful, and in the mysterious calm, the consequence of his choices forced him to realize that meaning and relevance are the by-product of willful action. This insight challenged the premise of Dr. Jardine’s thesis that brutality is the common currency of existence, and Anthony wondered how he might explain this revelation to Dr. Jardine. Perhaps Dr. Jardine could better explore his thesis not through the examination of another but through his own experience. Personal knowledge reveals much more than hypothetical curiosity. Anthony decided to invite Dr. Jardine into his own experiment.
* * * * *
Anthony maneuvered himself to the food passage to wait. Eventually, Dr. Jardine opened the slot and Anthony called to him.
“Dr. Jardine? Could you look in on me? I’ve injured my finger, and I am in pain.”
“What have you done?”
“Please,” Anthony said.
Dr. Jardine did not answer, but Anthony, understanding prey, neither moved nor spoke, and eventually the lock clicked and the door eased open. Anthony grabbed Dr. Jardine by the legs, yanked him into the room, and snapped his left tibia with enough force that the bone broke through the skin. Anthony pulled the door closed, and it locked.
Anthony dragged Dr. Jardine to the side of his mattress. “Right now,” Anthony said, “you are in shock, and you are quiet. That’s good. You can listen for once. Later, when you realize what is happening to you, the pain will return and you will be grateful for it because it will confirm that you are alive.” Anthony settled onto his mattress. “Theory, Dr. Jardine, cannot always be reduced to experiment. Sometimes the only way to validate a supposition is to live the circumstances which challenge it. I’m providing you that opportunity.”
Dr. Jardine groaned. The shock of injury and the isolating blackness of the room held him. His agony was mostly psychological, the flow of adrenaline helping to mitigate the physical pain, but suddenly he flinched and cried out.
“What’s that?” he asked. “Something at my leg.”
Anthony grabbed the muscular rodent. He touched the tendon-strong tail and felt the circular ridges like fleshy annular rings. “This is the male of the first pair of rats,” Anthony said. “He smells your blood. They all do.”
Dr. Jardine tried to sit up. “Will you kill me?”
“Originally, I named the animals,” Anthony said. “They breed so fast, though. I couldn’t keep up, so I stopped using names. I continued to foster what relationships I could, but it’s an odd sensation to attempt to know a thing without naming it.”
Anthony could hear the muffled heartbeats of the other rats, hungry and impatient. Dr. Jardine’s heartbeat continued to race. Anthony released the rat, and it returned to the bloody flesh of the scientist’s leg.
“What are you doing?” Dr. Jardine called into the darkness.
“Allowing him to eat,” Anthony explained, “and giving you the opportunity to choose your purpose.”
“Food for animals?”
Momentarily, more rats came to the raw flesh, and Dr. Jardine pushed against the floor and ordered them away with a terrified tremor in his voice. Blind with rage and fear, he reached into the darkness and grabbed a tail. He flung the beast with all his might, and the other rats drew back.
Anthony listened to the rodent’s landing, hard against the floor. But they are a hearty species, and it scrambled back to the hungry pack.
“I beg you,” Dr. Jardine said, “have mercy.”
“Mercy,” Anthony told him, “is a choice that only humans can discharge, since animals do not recognize such a concept.”
The adrenaline breaths of the Doctor filled the room with uneasiness. “Please, Anthony.”
At that moment, Anthony distinguished the muffled flight of the bat. He laid back, stretched his arms at his side, and waited.
“The bat must eat,” he said, “and you must keep still, Dr. Jardine.”
The bat fluttered and landed on the mattress. Anthony exhaled softly and allowed the bat unobstructed access.
“You have been feeding the bats with your own blood?” Dr. Jardine asked.
“Not both,” Anthony answered, without moving his head. “The first, I killed.”
“I see. Then you have become one of them, and you will kill me. Kill to survive; that is the primary meaning of existence.”
“You hold forth one concept of life and death, Dr. Jardine. But there is another.” The bat was nearly full, but Anthony pressed against his tiny head with strong, gentle fingers. “That’s enough for now,” he said. “You can return later.”
“You have become an animal, just as I predicted,” Dr. Jardine said.
“You will have to think it through on your own, Dr. Jardine. You have a few days, at least. But as you ponder your theories, keep in mind there is another choice when it comes to life and death, the greatest gift one can give to another.”
“What do you mean?”
Anthony did not answer. Some knowledge must be earned.
He felt the tension of the rats, and when they could hold their hunger no longer, they ran at Dr. Jardine en masse and began to chew at his exposed raw flesh. Anthony moved to the Doctor’s side, and the rats, unable to distinguish one man from the other, gorged themselves in a turbulent frenzy, their undulating forms like maggots over carrion.
Thom Brucie’s books include the novels, Weapons of Cain and Children of Slate; a book of short stories, Still Waters: Five Stories; and two chapbooks of poems: Moments Around the Campfire with A Vietnam Vet and Apprentice Lessons.
He has been nominated twice for the Pushcart Prize, and his short stories and poems have appeared in a variety of journals including The San Joaquin Review, Cappers, The Southwestern Review, Pacific Review, Wilderness House Literary Review, North Atlantic Review, and many others.
Dr. Brucie is Professor of English at South Georgia State College.
This story first appeared in 2013 in the journal, North Atlantic Review.