2017-08-19 17:13 fiction historical-fiction pym Benjamin Brood

A.G. Pym • Chapter Two

The Navigator

Chas Grisham looked out over the roofs of the asylum at the arms of the gigantic octopus that he'd monitored in the last several days, watching it make its way from the Hudson. Why, he wondered while on the edge of total panic, weren't the buildings crumbling under the weight of those huge barnacle encrusted tentacles? He stood on the pinnacle of the main building, having shimmied his way from an unlocked upper window. And he teetered there, screaming with all the force he could summon, attempting to repel the leviathan. He continued to ignore the sound behind him, voices he thought, but muted by the tremendous creaking and slithering and snappings of the monster. They were saying something about being prudent, he thought one of the voices was his nurse. But he continued to scream, convinced that a magical combination of invectives would banish the thing that otherwise could devour Manhattan.

Grisham came from a good, well-to-do family. Like most of the inmates of Bloomingdale Asylum. Calling them patients would be too generous on behalf of the the doctors and staff. The inmates remained interred for a single reason, unrelated to their mental conditions, and that was for the yearly expenses charged by the asylum and paid by their families. Some inmates entered completely sane, however none remained that way indefinitely.

Chas Grisham entered in no capacity sane. His father and uncle delivered him to the asylum, having taken him from his squalid boarding room by Five Points where he had spent the previous year pacing, yelling out desperately, yelling obscenities, and drinking heavily. Despite his inherited wealth he'd severed connections and refused to live in the conditions his class afforded him. Instead he spent time in the filth of the slums. Something had happened on that voyage, his father and uncle agreed, something that mentally unhinged him.

After they pulled him down off the roof they took him to the manic ward and stripped off his clothes. They then wrapped him tightly in sheets of cloth. He'd learned not to struggle otherwise he'd suffer more abuse, several of his teeth were gone over the years from a variety of these reminders. Then they tied him down and wet the cloth with buckets of water. Usually they would leave him like this for half a day occasionally dousing the coverings again. Sometimes in the beginning he would cry out, but he was always reduced to a state of whimpering. The first few of times they applied this treatment Dr Quotidian stood next to him proudly explaining the marvelous efficiency of the new technique and how he'd gotten Dr Someone-Or-Other to use it in another lunatic asylum.

Then he was thrown into a cell. These were small spaces, not large enough to fully lie down in, and totally bare and devoid of light beyond the small grill on the door, put there in case the staff needed to look in — which they never did. He would be there no less than a week.

In these times, the first day or so, he resolved to recover. Reaching deeply within himself for the strength and clarity he previously believed he lacked, now he was determined to apply it consistently and finally get out of this institution for madmen. He would this time, this time would be different. However, invariably by the second day overwhelming despair overtook him and he felt himself sliding backwards into the dreams and remembrances of that voyage many years ago, the one where these problems began. How easy it must be, he thought, for those who have not seen what I've seen to be sane. Finally he always surrendered to the idea of his destiny, to his undeniable death here in the asylum as something predetermined and right and natural. There was nothing to struggle against anymore, there was no possible counter-argument. In this sense his surrender was a relief.

When he was released from the manic ward he went back to his room on the second floor. He had a nice room by the standards of lunacy, yet certainly a room the outside world would consider spartan. A monk's room, barely habitable. The only grace he'd found comfort in was the window, a single tall window, that looked out over the front of the asylum, with the broad avenue in the distance and trees and the occasional traffic. Thank God, no water could seen from this side of the building. For this room his family must've paid considerably extra as the asylum's second floor was more generally for notable and affluent occupants.

That day he was led back to his room by Falstaff, a name inmates had anointed one of the guards, who firmly held Chas' upper arm as they walked through passages then up stairs, eventually reaching the second floor with Falstaff grumbling and huffing the whole way. He gave Chas a casual shove and last remonstrations for the trouble Chas caused, then he shut the door leaving Chas in a dark room, a room whose only window was now covered in black paint. Chas wept quietly.

At night, when the light seeping through the cracks disappeared, his mind took the blackness and projected on it the terrible expanse of open waters. He could hear it sloshing and cracking, waves hitting the sides of the room as it pitched up and down peaks and valleys of a thousand miles of salt sea. The sky at this imaginary latitude was spiteful and always overcast, so there weren't even stars to provide consolation. He dreaded that ancient mechanism left in man which fell prey with terror to the emptiness above, below, and around him. An abyss that annihilates, thoroughly, as wayward and rudderless a man is left to the mercy of raw nature and being adrift. But there was a seed of direction, hidden in himself, he'd called upon it as good navigators do, to digest all the signals and nature and the seething abyss around him had to offer. He had deciphered the invisible lines of travel before the routes through the vast emptiness, until he'd found land again. This was relief from an ocean that sought to confuse and scatter him. He was The Navigator, he'd been gifted it, despite the punishments he'd suffered, he would always be The Navigator.

In the morning the dining hall was still a dirty place, covered in a sheen of grease, the unadorned walls cracked in places and the baseboards chewed by mice. The food was never any better. For breakfast there was a tasteless porridge with a tab of sour slightly spoiled butter. Sometimes there would be apples, bruised and complete with worms. Then supper in the late afternoon. Normally this was a bowl of fat and gristle they told him was beef, and poorly or incompletely cooked potatoes, along with the morning's butter, then a small bowl of rice without sugar. The silverware and dishes they ate these meals from had never been properly washed.

Chas sat at the same table he always did, wearily, feeling drained and weakened. He was greeted by raised eyebrows and nods from The Senator and The Professor. Three other gentlemen sat at the table, on the end, huddled together, but said nothing and did not acknowledge anything other than the breakfast, which was their usual course of action. Those three always sat together and mumbled only to each other in words and a tone he could never really distinguish.

"Back from the dead? Arisen again?" said The Professor.

"I had a brief period of prescribed retreat."

"It appears to have taken its toll," said The Senator.

"What remarkable events unfolded in my absence?" Chas asked, although he wasn't sure he really wanted to know.

The Professor and The Senator glanced towards one another quickly then The Senator said "The Milkman bit off The Judge's nose".

Chas looked across the room to where The Judge would sit and he was there, but he had a large wrap of cotton bandages around his head at the middle of his face, across where his nose should have been, and seeping from that general area was a large mottled stain of diluted blood. His eyes looked blackened. The Judge sat and simply stared at this porridge dependently. Chas did not see The Milkman anywhere in the room.

"We thought maybe you saw him during your retreat," said The Professor.

"I saw nothing but the awful eternally rolling sea." There was some silence after he said this, and each looked into their bowls.

"Graham has at last announced his support of the bill." Said The Senator in response to no one and no asked question. "My support will be forthcoming."

The Professor ignored him. He leaned in a little to Chas, "there was a man asking about you."

Chas paused in his joyless porridge consumption. This was unlike the things The Professor usually said.

"Oh? What sort of man?"

"Someone of stature, I could tell. I can tell these things. But also a man who's seen the world. This too, I can tell these things when I look at people."

"Where did you see him?"

"Talking to Dr Quotidian. They trust me you know they trust me, I can go anywhere here. I help out. So one day I saw this visitor, and he was talking with Quotidian." The Professor flicked some porridge off his beard.

Chas was interested now. "What were they talking about? What were they saying?"

"My hearing." The Professor declared, warming into a self-satisfied grin.

"Your what?"

"My hearing, you see," The Professor tapped the sides of his head with his fingers, "is still very good. Very good for a man my age."

"Alright. What did you hear?"

"Quotidian says 'impossible out of the question he's incurable' and the man says 'that doesn't matter as long as he's capable of navigating'."

Chas became anxious. Who would know this or want this of him after all that time? "What else did they say?"

"The doctor appeared almost violently reluctant until the man started talking about money. Then the good doctor, ha ha, you see, he starts considering things. I can see this, when I look at people, I can see the gears and how the gears move, and the good doctor's gears were moving quite a lot. But paperwork, the doctor said, you need to have the family do the correct paperwork. And the man says he's talking to the family and that as soon as it's done he would return."

"Return and then what?"

"Oh well, you know, Falstaff got between me and them. And as much as I'd liked otherwise, he instead occupied my attentions with his typical inanities."

Maybe it's not about me, Chas thinks. Maybe The Professor heard badly, or maybe there's somebody else here who is a navigator. Of course not, but he played that game with himself for a little while. He couldn't help it, he couldn't stop thinking about what The Professor told him. It was a consuming abnormality in an abnormal place. Who had he ever known who fit the particulars of this incident? What person had the resources and desire to liberate him from this shabby badly run tomb he was left to die in?

He barely slept that night. As much from usual attacks as this new wrinkle. The beak of the octopus kept him up. The din of it slapping open then slapping shut, he heard the tentacles and its suckers grasping and searching the sides of the building for him. With the now blackened window he could no longer see it, but he knew it was there. He would not mention the leviathan to anyone again, mostly to avoid being sent back to the manic ward. He physically grabbed his own jaw and held it shut as he tried to scream. When the monster got in it would kill all of them and there's nothing he could do about that, certainly he'd tried, but nothing could be done anymore.

The next day Quotidian summoned him to his office. Falstaff was sent to find Chas, who was in the card room. Falstaff pulled him up out of his chair in the middle of a game and with hands on both shoulders Chas was marched down the corridor. He didn't mind much anyway since the other three players were each playing a different game — one pinochle, one poker, one bridge — it made no sense whatsoever. He'd been participating just to occupy time.

Dr Quotidian's office was the best corner of the building. The late morning sun came in through the wood blinds as if it was unconcerned with human lunacy. There was a smell of leather and good whiskey in the room. Quotidian's countenance was simultaneously smug and bothered. Evidently better things to do than this.

"Please sit," Quotidian demanded. Chas had been through this routine, or what he believed was a routine, a couple of times before. You don't get invited to the office unless Quotidian wants to talk about finances or himself.

"What do you know about Arthur Gordon Pym?" Quotidian asked.

"I don't… I've never known anyone by that name."

"Are you sure? Think hard, it's important." Quotidian pressed his hands together then lifted them to his mouth where he tapped his index fingers together like an insects maw.

"I, ah… I'm sure I have never known him." Chas tried to say this with confidence and emphasis so that Quotidian would believe him.

"Well," he spread his arms out as if absolving Chas' ignorance, "he's certainly interested in you. Can you think of any reason why?"

"No."

"He knew you were once a navigator. Anything to do with that?"

Once a navigator? Chas thought I am The Navigator you clueless fool. "No, I have no idea."

"I see. All right… a bit of a mystery then. Just so that you know I consider your treatment incomplete, and I've said as much to this Mr Pym. You have a great deal more progress to make. Your incident last month I think is proof of this. Your family has been very prompt, so far, with their contributions. But I would hate to see that stop and the… quality… of your treatments decline. Also, in the case your family decides to make other arrangements — which is of course within their right and within the realm of possibility — everyone involved needs to be aware that there is, and always has been dear Chas always has been, the requirement of a release fee. A sizable release fee. Just so that everything is ship shape — erm, excuse me, I'd forgotten the particulars of your condition — considered final and properly resolved. Is what I'm saying making sense to you Chas?"

"Yes, I understand."

He understood nothing about Mr Pym. But he understood everything about Quotidian. Chas thought, I may be insane but I understand you're a man who loves nothing more than commerce.

"That's it for today Chas. If anything more occurs to you about this Mr Pym please let me know."

"Yes."

Falstaff was called in, and being within earshot clearly also aware of the conversation. This time Chas was escorted via a gentle guiding by the elbow instead of the muscle crunching shoulder clamp, a demonstration of his rise in the stature of the institution. If he was potentially profitable he was potentially more important.

When he saw The Professor and The Senator the next morning he mentioned the elbow and The Senator held up his bowl of porridge which was bedecked with flies, and he toasted "Here's to a rise in fortunes". Then he proceeded to give a half hour speech about the Senates' Appropriations Committee, and how he had allies that were going to move into action soon, very soon.

Days went by. Was it days? Perhaps it was weeks. The routine that he'd cultivated as a bludgeon to his eccentricities were interfered with. Now the poisonous aspects of the place were again sharply focused, as if he were new to the mad house. He preferred not to think about this Mr Pym but it intruded mightily.

The sloshing in his room grew worse. The room had been battered before in storms, but it remained tight and free from water. Now however he saw leaks everywhere. The boards, he thought, must finally be about to give way. He took his blankets and sheets and did what he could to clog the gaps. How buoyant was the bed? He wondered. He'd probably find out. The wind and waves were deafening. Below he could feel the leviathan's presence, in an ocean that had no bottom, and it was hovering there, its arms milling around in anticipation of crushing the tiny vessel adrift above.

An unusually cold summer dragged on. Chas found himself bundling up and shivering. This was ridiculous given the cold he'd once endured, so he scolded himself constantly. His thoughts diluted. His anxiety lessened.

The Senator had an incident, becoming violent in the game room one day yelling something about Octavius, and was absent from their habitual breakfasts. When he did return he was subdued, bruised and all the hair on his head had been shaven off.

The thoughts of Pym had subsided when one day he was summoned, again directed via the elbow, to see Dr Quotidian in the visitors parlor. The parlor was a room on the first floor, with nice chairs, a fireplace, a small piano that was disabled from making any noise since lunatics were drawn to it. There were several generic pastoral paintings on the walls, no doubt selected for their soothing aesthetic. The carpet, Chas knew, was replaced a couple of times because it'd been urinated on by nervous inmates more frightened of their family than the institution they'd been delivered to.

Chas was visited by his father exactly three times in that parlor. This was a long time ago. He believed. He couldn't be exactly sure since his usual methods of keeping time, so essential for the art of navigation, were removed from him. For a while he'd kept tick marks in one corner of his room, carving lightly into the base of the wall, but he'd lacked a log book or maps and he could never glean their actual direction because he couldn't get enough of the horizon or the night sky. If only he had his tools. He wondered about men in the distant past who didn't even have a basic sextant, barbaric vikings holding up a sunstone and using dead reckoning, how marvelously attuned their instincts must have been. By comparison his were chained to modernity. He'd stopped keeping track and let the room go into the sea, let it be taken by currents, and sometimes he regretted having given up.

The last few steps to the parlor were painful and he felt his ears ringing and he steadied himself for the face of his father, older no doubt, disappointed no doubt. Maybe he would be thrown onto the street, or worse, the public mad house which was a thousand, a million times worse that this asylum. How does one prepare for hell on earth? He wondered.

Instead he found Dr Quotidian and seated across from him was a middle aged gentleman. Certainly a gentleman by his attire, but who's immediate glare was at the same time penetrating, definitely intelligent, but not self-possessed or arrogant in any way that was intellectually aggressive. There was a quality in his look that was melancholic or at least tainted by extreme experiences.

This then must be Mr Pym.

"Please sit," said Quotidian.

Falstaff twisted his elbow slightly and pulled him down into a plain wooden chair that was opposite the large upholstered chairs the doctor and gentleman sat in. Falstaff took up sentry immediately behind Chas with his arms crossed.

"You were the navigator for the Constance," Mr Pym said. He said it in a way that was not in any sense a question.

"Now Mr Pym we've discussed the delicacy of Mr Grisham's condition…" Quotidian interjected.

"There's no point in dancing," Mr Pym said, very evidently immune to Dr Quotidian's methods. "I'm not here to fleece anyone, I'm here to offer employment."

Quotidian's jaw hung open for more time than it should've, as dramatic effect. Pym continued, "Are you still familiar with the routes you took at the 60th parallel south? Beyond the Thule Island?" Pym was so direct Chas felt he had no recourse but to answer everything simply as he could. Together they would avoid Quotidian's self-satisfied verbosity.

"Yes. That route is still known to me."

"Given an adequate set of maps and tools do you believe you could still plot that course?" Mr Pym asked.

"Yes. Despite my current… situation… I am very capable of plotting that course."

Pym turned to Quotidian, "We will need a moment alone. Without your staff." And Pym threw a hard quick look at Falstaff who hadn't budged and didn't acknowledge it, probably lost in pudding reverie.

"I must protest sir!" said Quotidian in his most offended and practiced voice, "This man is not well! He needs constant guidance!"

"I am confident of our safety." And Pym then tapped a folded paper that was on a small table between them as if to exaggerate the point.

Dr Quotidian exuded his loudest possible harrumph, swooping the paper up off the table and pointed at Falstaff to follow him. He stomped out of the parlor with Falstaff behind him.

"Quotidian says you aren't well. As someone familiar with the boundaries of sanity this opinion doesn't necessarily bother me. But I need to know if you can do it, if you can plot that course."

"I can do it. I think of… of little other than navigation."

"And the remainder? What are those thoughts?"

"I cannot… I can't say without perhaps altering your opinion of me and validating Dr Quotidian's."

"That's an honest answer. I know a lot about you. My current industry and profession is one of private investigation, mostly for the sake of insurances, but not always. I know the family you come from, and I know a great deal about the journey of the Constance. It was through a mutual acquaintance, Mr William Mackson of Hoboken, that has led me to the tale of the Constance and your reputation as a navigator. You see, a long time ago, before my reformation as a investigator and capitalist, I too was a sailor. Although not quite by conscious decision. I too have a tale to tell. I too dream of the impossible things, the terrible things, that happened in the forgotten places of the world. I too know of the monsters that live in the unfathomable depths below us even now. Like you I often think of nothing else. It is my aim to ascertain, once and for all, the nature of these things by completing a scientific expedition below the 60th parallel. The journey may proceed under the aegis of science but have no doubt that this journey is to also kill the dreams, to lay them to rest permanently. What say you?"

For Chas the room was swimming, the distant crashing of waves pushing and pulling. He decided instantly however, with a deep sense of instinct, that Mr Pym was correct.

"I will go with you, I will plot the course that might save us."

Mr Pym stood, smiled and nodded. "Good, let's begin."