Entering through the heavy green, odd-shaped door, Dr Charles Dennis shivers. An inclement night: wind tears through the old house, the hospital, where desperate souls bury immorality, illness, fear of the immortal, or they bury themselves. Tonight, something other than death, sickness, and despair saturate the place; something else seems to have permeated the thick walls.
Old Jacob, a tangled mass of verbiage and stinking clothes, huddled on a makeshift bed beside an open fire, seeks the good doctor’s eye. “It were a night like this I found him, a black night — dark as ever ’ell was afore the Devil lit his fire!” Phlegmatic eyes illuminated; he leans forward. The unfortunate doctor wants to leave; a warm supper awaits him at the inn, but Jacob’s posture, its eerie promise, holds him.
He watches as the old man pulls his frayed coat tight about his skinny frame, rubs cold arms to warm still colder blood, and draws closer to the feeble flames that claw the dank October night in the open grate.
Jacob, like a hideous automaton, clasps the doctor’s arm, and forces his wet mouth close against his shrinking ear. “It were a night like this I found him: cold, wet, curled like a babe unborn, all dirty soiled. Before Dr. Dennis can enquire of whom he speaks, Jacob continues.
“Sometimes he wept, and others he laughed, a screeching sound that sent the rats of Tanner Street — for that is where he was — scurrying.” The good doctor steps back in alarm.
Spittle oozes between blackened teeth, and a sticky river runs down the old man’s long chin. “Before I found him, I had a house, a home — family.” He stops and lifts his sallow cheek to receive the warm caress of time passed. “No more, no more.”
A second breath: “Born in the caul, he was — a sac encased him!” Fingers defying flesh, possessed, he seeks bone. “Dried, in his pocket thirty-four years! ‘Had powers!’ he said. ‘Curse as much as a blessing!’” The words die on his lips. He slips into a disturbed sleep.
There is no obvious sign of physical sickness. The old man is somewhat emaciated, but stout eating will cure that. Cow’s foot jelly this very night, and beef broth thereafter. He would inform the cook. If the good doctor is not mistaken, death will not visit this place tonight.
So, carried a caul — the thin membrane which forms a closed sac about a foetus and has not been ruptured in childbirth. The doctor thinks, a seafaring man; it is often said that a sailor, if he carries such, will never drown. And, if it were not his, well then, there were those who would pay much for such promises. The good doctor shrugs.
With Jacob asleep, there is nothing to delay him, and the thought of supper is gnawing at his gut. Beef, bread, and a tankard of ale seem within his reach. He turns to escape through the green door, but, like a twisted corpse revived, old Jacob rises, and grasps his departing arm.
“Seaman? Yes! No! Not then — the house, the big house on the hill. No, no more; gone, split by lightning that very night.”
“Ah, yes!” The doctor has heard the chilling story of the brother and sister who perished there: the brother’s questionable sanity, the violated coffins in the closed family crypt, his sister’s mysterious illnesses, and the whispers that claimed her coffin had been secured too soon. There had been a third person, one who had escaped, who told his story at every opportunity, but he was said to be dead! There was mention of his being found in an alley, dressed, they said, as a pauper, though he was by right a man of some substance. Could old Jacob be speaking of him?
“From the house, it was; found it after he left — after she came to the door, clasping her long-dead corpses, robbed from the tombs in the family vault, before lightning struck the house and he had to run for his life, and sanity.”
“The third person?” the doctor asks.
“‘Yes, yes. Stuck in the hem of his coat, it was!” Jacob’s hand relaxes, returns to his own flesh. He picks at the dried sores that scar his ancient hands.
“Tried to rid himself of it — leave it in some holy place. Weren’t to be! Each time, again, wedged in the hem of his coat. Feared of its unholy nature, wrapped it in the caul, he did — protection, like! Still, she came to him, often, arms outstretched, yearning, hollow eyes pleading. Always she mouthed the words, but no sound, no sound, just the howl of the wind.” Eyelids sink down; mercifully, darkness finds Jacob.
Dr. Dennis looks at the inert man, watches as his scarred hand relaxes and releases a strange package. “The caul?” There is a draught. The good doctor glances towards the green, coffin-shaped door, expecting to see yet another poor soul, seeking refuge from the vulgarities of the street and the weather, suffering or pretending sickness. No-one is seen, and soon the caul, again, demands his attention. He retrieves it from a tight, cloth crevice; one of many fashioned about Jacob’s sparse frame, and examines it closely. Peeling back the caul, he exclaims, “A foot, a child’s foot! Unborn, if I am not mistaken!”
A hand slips over his shoulder, and he turns. Her face covered by a loose hood, she stands and waits. “The woman Jacob spoke of?” Fear flutters in the doctor’s torso. He passes the foot to her. Lightning rips through the building and through the good doctor’s chest.
Monica Carter was born in Essex, but now lives in the East Midlands, England. She was a mature student at Leicester University B.A. HONS, Eng and Phil, later, an adult tutor in local colleges. She is now retired, and writes shorts, flashes and is working on a first novel.