The ordinary way to approach a mystery would be to tell you about the crimes first, and we would gradually make our way towards uncovering the culprit. Perhaps you should know that on October 13th, 2004, a book of Assyrian philosophy—a predecessor to the Hebrew Kabbalah—as well as a medieval bestiary were both discovered to be absent from their silver file drawers in the vault beneath the Paris museum. These texts were nothing special, in the world of rare books. A group of students in the graduate course on text preservation had planned to use the books as, essentially, practice, pieces of pulp with words which nobody would miss too much should a fumbling student erase them with a blot of acid. The absence of the books was attributed to oversight. No one thought that there had been any sort of a crime, at first.
To understand the real crimes, the string of murders that took place between the months of February and March of 2005, in and around New York City, we will have to deviate from the standard pattern of the mystery. I will have to introduce you to David Douglas. His name is suspiciously ordinary, or so I’d always felt. When I met him, as a history student at Columbia, and he introduced himself as the preeminent scholar on Western esotericism, I laughed. I thought that a twenty-year-old dude in blue jeans and a filthy flannel, with a forgettably normal name was about as far from the esoteric as you could get. And he said, “that’s why I understand it. I am looking at it all the way from the outside.” I would never have guessed that those words should have been my first clue.
I became involved in the story five years later, presumably by accident. I was still living in the city, wrapping up yet another semester of ancient history on my seven year track towards becoming a pickled professor. My girlfriend, Jenny Macintosh was an artist with a passion for history, or she was an historian with an artistic bent. Either way, she was pursuing graduate coursework in text preservation on the other side of the world. On October 13th, as the sun set in New York and the city of Paris was turning-in after a long night, Jenny and I shared our daily phone call. It was in the most casual way that she said, “No class today. They couldn’t find the books.”
“There’s a clerk somewhere chewing through his fingertips.”
“Right? There are no small losses in a museum.”
“What are they? The original bible and a handwritten Cardenio?”
She laughed in the pretentious way which meant that we shared a snooty secret. Then she said, “Just another bestiary. And an Assyrian tree of life.”
David Douglas appeared. A universal memory, a pastiche of a thousand nights glowed within me: my disgustingly carpeted apartment in Harlem, the long forgotten blue corduroy couch, a cloud of pot smoke, and the words of the foremost scholar on Western Esotericism, as he rambled about his favorite subject.
“The all-containing mind,” I mused.
Jenny said, “I immediately thought of David too.”
Shortly after our senior year, David had dropped off the face of the earth, and Jenny and I joked that this was a literal descent.
“He’s on his own planet now,” I said, and we laughed about the ridiculous image of a cat burglar in flannel, muttering to himself about the Rosicrucians as he tiptoed past a sleeping guard in a beret.
“The strange thing is that I actually did think I saw him,” said Jenny. “Just another guy in glasses and torn clothes, skulking around the museum.”
“Sure,” I said, “Your mind playing tricks.”
“The mind,” David said, “has been growing. What is it to be an animal, playing out your prescribed program? Being unaware of itself. What is it to be a plant? A rock? A bit of molten matter congealing in the cosmic void? Each thing is. To be. The thing-in-itself as they say across campus, pretentiously framing words with words. They don’t understand. They’re like animals that mumble. To them language is just another empty routine. They speak and think like a lemur licks its toenails. They don’t know why. They’re like animals compared to me.”
These remembered phrases drifted through my mind that night, as I lay in bed wondering what really had become of my peculiar friend. I understood the gist of his obsession. Nobody in his world took mysticism seriously. I was certain that he had left this side of the globe to discover a cave in the Himalayas or the depths of the jungle, where he could sit crosslegged and reflect on weird subjects. More fragments of David’s philosophy floated through my mind that night, and beneath these thoughts there lurked a dim question: how did I remember his words so well? I had not thought much about David during the last two years, but now he was flooding my mind with forgotten lore. “If you actually read Plato,” he said, “you’ll come out as mystical as a Hindu priest. They don’t know what they’ve got in their hands. They’re like apes banging on a keyboard.”
“And what are you?” Did I remember saying that? Or was I asking him that question now, in my imagination?
“Baby. I’m Mozart.”
That night David returned to me, and I couldn’t shake him. I woke up the next morning from a dreamless sleep, and he was there, crouching in the corner of my mind, flashing his crooked grin. I stumbled out of bed and wandered to the kitchen to fix myself some coffee in the French press. My fingers found the freezer handle, and I heard the shuffle and rattle of the bag of beans. My feet thumped to the counter, and my body repeated the well worn cycle of grinding the beans, filling the automatic kettle with water and subsequently combining the ingredients in the hermetically sealed pitcher to await the transmutation. None of these actions engaged me consciously. David Douglas was muttering in my memory. Did he once ask me about the dates of a series of battles during the War of the Roses? Perhaps I was imagining the conversation. You miss your friend, I assured myself. But why might he want a bestiary? What would he want to know about medieval fantasy? The gilded pages of an imaginary book opened before me. I could see Celtic swoops forming indecipherable sentences scrolling down the lefthand page. On the right there was a crudely flat image of a creature. A man’s head, his face twisted in a painful grimace, projected from the neck of a lion. A hissing viper knobbed the end of the monster’s tail.
“Manticore.” I do not believe I said this word. My passion had always been for nonfiction. Growing up, while other children had been lost in fantasy, I had been dutifully memorizing the particulars of each of the forty-two naval battles that formed the body of The War of 1812. My destiny was always for the library, the stacks of reference texts, the world of the dead brought to life by my memory. Reality had always been fantastic enough for me. I couldn’t tell you where I picked up the word, “Manticore.” Perhaps I’d read it in a bestiary on a date with Jenny to the museum, though I couldn’t recall a specific image, unless this dreamed book I was now seeing was a memory. Strange thoughts preoccupied me that morning. I poured my cup of coffee—I’d been standing over the French press for a lost fifteen minutes—and I continued my routine, reading a history of the Egyptian dynasties of the Late Middle Kingdom. But it wasn’t long before I set aside my book and pulled out my laptop to learn about this animal that was prowling in the overgrowth of my imagination.
The manticore found its way into the Western consciousness by way of Greek translation. It was born in Persia, where it was called mardya khwor, man eater. The various Greeks who first heard its story have differing opinions about the monster’s reality.
Given the leonine body of this human, animal hybrid, I immediately connected the manticore with a mythic figure in my current field of study, that is, the imposing sphinx, famous for judging men with riddles. My answers stopped there, and out of this tide of information there arose a new question. The disappearance of Jenny’s texts from the vault had opened a door for the mad mystic, and once again I was overwhelmed with weird investigations. David had always used me as a well of historical specifics from which he could draw whenever he needed help connecting errant facts into some bizarre constellation. I’d rolled my eyes at his arguments about the realities beyond our reach, the obvious truth—through his eyes—of reincarnation and beings occupying higher planes. Now he was back. One small reminiscence about the maniacal shaman had pushed my attention down this path. Without even trying, David Douglas had served as the leading flick to a row of dominoes that I didn’t even know I had aligned. Here I was contemplating manticores and their connection to the Assyrian tree of life, wondering about the possibility of David Douglas, mystic, punk, cat burglar. Why?
None of it was real, I told myself. I shut my laptop and returned to my pharaohs. My imagination had gotten carried away. I tried to ignore David, in his flannel and ragged jeans, crouching in the corner, teeth gleaming in the sunlight.
I went through the rest of my day sleepwalking. I read, I facilitated my Archaeology 101 class, during which I sat at the front of the room reading meaningless news articles on my phone while the students finished their midterm exam; I ate lunch with the overwhelming memory of David Douglas, again distracting myself with anything I could find on my phone: lists of endangered animals, Wikipedia articles about said animals, a brief outline of the American naval strategy during WWII…. By the time I arrived at the library for my afternoon research, I was desperate. Flouting the pharaohs, I turned my attentions to the sphinx. I learned every detail about the construction of that monolith. I found an overview of the Kabbalah. I familiarized myself with the flowering of the lotus shaped mind. I read until I felt my phone buzzing in my pocket.
I sat on the library steps in the shadow of a lion sculpture which I attempted to ignore. I tried to talk with Jenny like it was the end of any other day, asking her about herself, sharing the mundane aspects of my routine and nervously laughing, as the lambent jaws of the shadow lion stretched over my head. She picked up on my stilted behavior and pressed me to confess.
“What do you know about this tree of life?” I said.
“David Douglas on the brain?”
“I can’t shake it. I woke up this morning… why would I be thinking about manticores?”
“The medieval monster?”
“They’re older than that.”
“I don’t really know about any of this stuff. Too bad you can’t call David.”
“I can’t get these weird ideas out of my head. Jenny, I’m obsessed.”
She just laughed, and I felt reassured. “That’s what seven years in research training will do for you,” she said. “Now you’re like a dog with a bone.”
“There is some crossover with my work.” I told her about the sphinx.
“See? You just miss your friend. The feeling got the better of your thoughts. You’ve got to follow it now. Who knows? Maybe there’s something in your subconscious that you were already sensing, and now its bubbling to the surface. Like it or not, you have to trust your intuition.”
Jenny was officially an artist first, historian second. And she was right, I felt. I played out the semester in this way, going through my grad school routine, gradually drifting further away from my original interest in the shifting diplomacy between the fathers and sons of the Late Middle Kingdom towards a topic that would have appealed to David: the significance of the sphinx, and the relationship of that icon to Egyptian thought. I was gradually losing my focus on historical specifics, and I was nervous. Something was changing inside of me. And maybe it was because of the connection to his interests, but I couldn’t shake this figure of David from my imagination. He was like an icon on the wall, a gargoyle crouching behind every corner. He was just in my mind, like anything else, the sphinxes and words from books, thoughts about Jenny and other memories that might appear in my imagination. There was one significant feeling about the fixed image of David, though, that made me chill with anxiety. With all of this new research I had undertaken since the day he’d appeared in my mind, I felt an eerie disassociation between myself and my research, as if I was once again finding answers for the mad mystic.
The semester concluded, and Jenny returned home for the winter. Life felt normal again, except that I now knew considerably more about the sphinx that I had previously wanted to.
“You know that they call it the Father of Doom?” I said this to Jenny as we were toasting glasses of wine before a fake fire on my laptop screen. It was Christmas Eve.
“Yes, I think you mentioned that,” she said, tossing back her glass.
“That’s just his name today, though. You know he’s perfectly aligned, facing east. Unquestionably a solar symbol. But given that the sun sets behind him, there’s some speculation that he’s actually an underworld guardian.”
“That makes sense. Considering all the doom.” She laughed, and I forced a smile. Jenny looked down into her glass and offered, “And I guess, if you get the riddle wrong, you’re going to the… other end.”
“No, the riddle is a Greek addition. Those Greeks are always twisting everything up. You have to unravel their riddles to find the truth.”
“You know who you sound like,” she said. I smiled broadly and apologized for letting myself get distracted.
There was another new feature in my life. I could not remember the last time that I had experienced a dream. I’d shut my eyes, adrift in a sea of lions. Out of the darkness I’d wake, the sun in my eyes, to find myself continuing along the same stream I had been contemplating on the previous night. This kind of obsession wasn’t totally new to me. As Jenny had pointed out, I had been trained into an automatic researcher. I didn’t worry too much about anything except the sphinx. Occasionally, the David leaning over me would applaud.
Life went on like that. Jenny returned to Paris, and another semester started. My faculty advisors scratched their heads over my new interests, until finally they had to intervene. I remember sitting in the cramped, mutual office of the three old men, Doctors Bowsley, Mews, and Hendin, as they crowded around Bowsley’s paper piled desk to talk some sense into me.
“It’s certainly interesting,” said Bowsley to the translucent pages of my essay. His gray cheeks sagged, and he contemplated my words with misted eyes.
“This is all speculation,” said Mews. His face and tonsured scalp shined red with apoplexy. “You cannot peer into the minds of the past. Facts, man. We need facts.”
I smoothed my jeans and played with the cuffs of my flannel—I’d taken to wearing the grungy shirts against the February chill. “I am using what details I gleaned from—sir, it’s all obvious.”
“Oh, sir…” Mews waved away my words and crossed his arms. Bowsley and Hendin exchanged a worried look, and Dr. Hendin, the youngest of the three, waved a wiry hand for Bowsley to pass him my writing.
“I think I understand what you’re saying,” he said, poking his sharp nose between the pages. “But my question is, well, why? What’s the point?”
“Look, we all know that in the past people were more open from behind,” I said. I dropped my crossed leg to the floor and balled a fist atop each knee. “Group structure. Ritual. The barbaric individualism running rampant in our world today did not exist. Egypt as one of the earliest societies to rise from the swamp of our animal ancestry is evidence of—look, the pharaoh was the sun, right? Only the king says I am. Everyone else, they are his appendages. He is the I, the one. At least he was before everyone else started thinking that way.” I fell back in my chair, mirroring Mews’s folded arms and red face. I turned my eyes towards David, in his matching flannel, leaning against the doorframe. “He gets it,” I said.
I looked between three sets of wide eyes and bewildered brows, and I understood that something was wrong. The problem was that I didn’t know exactly what. My essay, I thought. I excused myself and marched to the door, pushing past David. Right, he’s not there, I remembered.
“Sure, sure,” he said. His shining teeth were everywhere.
“This is not real,” I said to myself, as I stumbled down the orange linoleum hallway. A passing student clutched her text book to her chest and backed away from me. I dared not turn around to see the three professors’ heads poking around the doorframe. I could feel them watching me. They were as evident as the enormous row of crooked fangs stretching over the hall.
“That’s right,” said the smile. “This. Is. Not. Real.” And the jaws opened wide and bellowed.
I was back on the library steps, huddled beneath the lion, though it was thankfully noon, so at least that feline shadow kept to itself. But David and his smile were everywhere. I dug my phone out of my pocket and called Jenny.
She didn’t answer.
As I ran across campus, down the enormous staircase to the street, I kept my eyes on the ground. I saw passing sneakers, high heels, loafers and boots, and I tried to not imagine the perplexed expressions on the faces above. I did my best to ignore everything, outside and in. David Douglas lay on his back, hands folded behind his head, floating along the sidewalk before me.
Once I was home, I locked the door and flooded the room with light: the standing lamp behind my favorite leather armchair, the ceiling lights, the porcelain lamp my mother had given me; I dug a pencil flashlight out of the tool box, and rediscovered an old metal Maglite I’d forgotten; I found the camping lanterns; I lit candles. I needed to focus on the hardwood floors, the pale yellow walls. The light would drown out my phantoms, I thought. I sat in a meditative posture in my circle of lights, and I tried to unravel the nature of obsession, but I found that I could only chant that word, “obsession, obsession,” otherwise my thoughts would immediately drift towards the sphinx, and I would begin to conjure grinning ghosts.
It was dark outside when I heard a knock at the door. Vaguely I realized that I must have missed Jenny’s daily phone call, and my heart tensed. I wanted to call her back. That was my true desire. But as soon as my fingers felt for the phone in my pocket, the knock sounded again, harder. I was compelled to rise. I opened the door to a man dressed in a flannel and torn jeans.
He was not David Douglas. This stranger was probably ten years older than us. His skin was loose and a sickly shade of gray. His hair clung to his head in tattered wisps, like a bundle of twisted wire. His mouth drooped, as if he were too exhausted to form an expression. He said nothing as he crossed the threshold. I wanted to demand an explanation, to force him back and slam my door in his vacant face. Instead I stood aside and ushered him into my home.
Wordlessly, the stranger crossed to my circle of light. He fell into the same seated posture I had just left. I watched as he reached into the fold of his billowing flannel and revealed a black satchel, which he turned over to dump onto the floor a fat vellum volume. The gilded title glittered in the onslaught of light. I was looking at the lost bestiary.
I found myself sitting across from this zombie, as he flipped the book open to the actual page, the real image I had once glimpsed in my mind. He pushed the bestiary towards me, and he tapped his finger on the painted manticore. Every detail was as I had imagined, including the viper headed tail, a unique feature among medieval manticores (I now knew). A sound like a creaking door caused me to look up from the page.
The man’s lips formed shapes, but only air escaped him, until in a voice like a death rattle he croaked, “Why?”
Then he rose. He did not stand. His legs did not unfold and push his body upright. He was jerked upwards with such sudden force, that I thought he must be flying. Then he stumbled to the door, and after hammering at the locks, he flung the door wide and vanished in a clatter of uneven footfalls.
“That was Bertie,” said David, standing in the hallway just outside. “You won’t be seeing him again.” Then that apparition reached forward and slowly shut my door. I watched his winking eye disappear behind the frame.
I called Jenny. Crouching in my circle of lights, the phone pressed tightly against my ear, I tried to assemble the facts into a story that made sense.
She answered in a sleepy voice. “I was worried. Is everything all right?”
I stared at the ancient book exposing its horrible monster. I slammed it shut. I thought over my story, and I tired to explain. All I could say was, “Sorry. I guess I got distracted.”
We traded mundane details, and we both justified the stilted conversation by saying that we were tired. I knew that she suspected something, and I guessed that she would be afraid that I had been with someone else. Which was true.
I had to get rid of it. I would not take one step further into this mystery. If I hid the book in my bag, I could just leave it in the library and let somebody else deal with the manticore. But the book could not be moved. It clung to my floor as if it were magnetized. My bizarre inability to lift the book brought to mind the question. Was it real? If any of it was, then all of it must be, the book, the stranger, and my friend turned tormentor. So, what was the answer? With these thoughts, the panic I’d felt since the professors had uncovered my mystery, that tension began to subside. I realized that until now, I had been floating. It was time to swim. And the wonderful thing about stewing in thought for seven years is that you can handle every ripple, current and eddy in the stream of consciousness.
So—are you real? I kicked the book. Immediately I clutched my left big toe and hopped on my right foot in a cartoonish gesture. How much of my sense of reality could be compromised? The book felt solid. The David and his company of smiles looked real. How to test their veracity? I had to go with my first thought, despite the risk. Fear of the police was too worldly a concern to be calculated into our current investigation. I pulled out my phone and took a picture of the book. I texted it to Jenny with the caption: do you see what I see?
That is, I formed the text. My thumb froze above the send button. I’ve often experienced dreams in which certain parts of the body become useless—a leg that cannot be unbent, a hand that becomes stuck at some painful angle—only to discover that the appendage has been constricted in reality, that the hand is stuck under my pillow, alive with prickles. That is how I felt as I tried in vain to lower my thumb.
“All right,” I said. “All right.”
I hung my head, or my head was hung. My hand moved. My fingers turned the page.
“Tell me,” said that voice, deep and preening. “Do you see what I see?”
My finger tapped the twisted face of the man lion. “Why are you doing this?”
“Funny, isn’t it?” He said. I could hear in his voice that he was trying to not laugh, as rubbery squeaks escaped between his words. “You always used to laugh at me. Both of you.”
“It was all in—“ Good fun, I was going to say, but once again my researcher’s mind had suddenly connected the dots. Both of you, he’d said. Auburn curls crowning her head like a halo, Jenny Macintosh glowed before me.
“You thought it was a coincidence?” He said. The Jenny in my mind was wearing a flannel. “You’ve forgotten your Sherlock Holmes,” she said with his voice. “There are no coincidences.”
“You… she stole the books?”
“Who do you think you’re talking to?”
“Why?” I stammered, and at the sound of myself asking that question, the final word which that gray emissary had croaked, my eyes welled.
“So that you get the picture,” they said. Shining smiles surrounded me. The mouths opened wide. “It. Is. Real.”
A mouth floated before me. I felt a subtle wind as I watched yellow flesh fill the space around it, forming a face, a neck, shoulders. A body dripped downwards. The form was more like a snake than a lion, but the hands that fell from the shoulders bore twisted claws. The face was unmistakably David. His lips smiled, but the overall expression was one of pain.
“Now,” said the thing. It dragged itself by its two arms across the floor, revealing that at the back the body ended in vagueness, a hole surrounded by floating bubbles of skin that morphed like the contents of a lava lamp. The thing hauled itself, seal-like, to flop onto my black leather sofa. It lay there on its back, panting.
“Now,” it said again—and it sounded so much less like my friend in person. “You know what to do.” I bent over the bestiary and tried to ignore the guttural breathing of the monster as I read.
“It is funny,” said David. His voice was distorted with a deep quality, as if the sound extended for several octaves downward, out of range of human hearing. “The manticore is the most fearsome predator in the world,” I read. “They could never sort out their metaphors,” David said, and I heard the voice projecting from the thing dripping on the couch as it sounded simultaneously within my head. “Read, read,” said the manticore.
“Because they prefer the flesh of men,” I said.
“It began with animals, like anything. It had to grow. You were right about the jungle. Little lizards and worms I used. Just a game, I thought. An imaginative exercise. Could I send them messages? Could I make them dance?”
“It has many forms of camouflage, for it is a master of light. As a leopard may use its spots to mimic shadows in the sun dappled canopy, the manticore’s skin can blend in with any background.”
“See why I wanted this volume? It’s the only one that gets it—” The manticore burst into a fit of phlegmy coughs. This was my opportunity to speak for myself.
“What do you want with me?”
He rolled over and propped his head on one of his clawed hands, and with the other paw balled into a fist he beat his chest as he cleared his throat. He smiled at me, and he looked so much like my friend in that posture. But his face was enormous. His cheeks sagged severely, as if they were about to spill across the floor. The face flowed in a slow rhythm. His whole body was gelatinous, and I realized that he was exerting effort to hold himself together.
“That’s right,” he grumbled to my series of thoughts. “And I need you to help me pull it all together. You’re the only one who reads. You were always a good reader.” My hand shot out and tapped on the manticore in the bestiary. “This book is the only one that gets it straight. It took me years of maneuvering to get somebody in the right place at the right time.”
“Jenny,” I whispered. I could barely control my own voice. “Is she….”
“Metaphor,” the monster exclaimed. “To prey on people, you see? We eat them. The inside.” He laughed. He purred and squeaked. He sounded like a shrieking zoo, not a man.
“I didn’t mean to,” he said. He turned his face towards me, his neck twisting like a roll of dough. His crooked teeth oozed in the candle light. “I didn’t mean to go this far.” He laughed again, but I could see the pain in his face. Despite everything, I saw the boy who used to spend the night on my couch, my friend who always had something to say, David Douglas, who led me on many wild goose chases that had filled my life with imagination. No, he hadn’t meant to go this far.
“You didn’t really….” I stopped. “But you already know my thoughts, isn’t that right?”
“Say it. Say it anyway.” He flopped back on the couch, shrouded in the darkness outside of my circle of light.
“You were always so passionate. Because you wanted so badly for it to be real. But you were afraid. That the world is just mundane.”
“Now you know what I think?” He laughed, a somber purr.
“What about Jenny?”
“I’m trying,” he said. “I’m trying not to. That’s why we need to read.”
He told me he was trying to stop it, to tame the manticore, to withhold his impossible jaws from devouring the world. And I knew I needed to let him think that I believed him. He wanted to find out how to control the manticore. I needed to find out how to destroy it.
So I read. The manticore is the man eater. That is, it’s a humanity eater, a mind consumer. It hollows out its victims.
“You were so resistant,” he said. “Both of you. Not like Bertie.”
A traveling salesman who had taken a trip to the Paris Museum and been compelled to pick up an opaque plastic gift shop bag that he’d spotted under a bench in the museum. “He didn’t even wonder. He just acted thoughtlessly. No questions asked.”
The manticore has a venomous second head, at least that is according to this special bestiary. “The snake sheds its skin. See what they were getting at? Like corn husk dolls.”
It has row upon row of teeth, but it does not use them for hunting. It uses its second head to poison its victims. Then it picks them apart. It uses the bones to decorate its lair.
“I am the lair. It is within me. Don’t ask how I know. I was afraid of this. My mind has played a nasty trick. I don’t believe I see the same world as you any more. What does it say about eyes? Are there any words about kaleidoscopes? Prisms? Flies?”
“I don’t believe this was written from the manticore’s perspective.”
“No. They always write in screwy metaphors when they’re looking from the outside.”
“What is it you’re afraid of?”
“You already know.”
His body was a shell of random bits of matter his mind had conjured together. I did not ask him what had happened to his original housing. Either it was a corpse, still sitting crosslegged in a cave in India, crawling with snakes and spiders, or he had cannibalized it in becoming this new form.
“I did it, Mikey. I found that higher plane.”
He would not stop. All David Douglas had ever wanted was to see what lurked on the other side of the mind, in the realms beyond humanity. What he needed was a stable form, a nicely decorated lair for his manticore.
“Fee-fi-fo-fum,” he mumbled, and he forced a laugh that descended into a low growl. “Don’t worry,” he continued. “I’ve got people for that. You just read. That’s what I need you for. A pair of clear eyes.”
“I’m trying not to,” he said again, and he repeated this statement several times as he trailed off into grumbles. The thing shut its eyes, and with a sizzling sound it dissolved into vapor. An apparition of David, ghost-like in its translucence but still more human than what had just been lying on my couch, in his classic flannel and ragged jeans he crouched on the windowsill, face turned towards the pale dawn blinking above the rooftops. He grinned. “I’ll just stay like this, for now. Until we can put it back together again,” he said.
It was only after the thing had vanished that I became aware of the smell. A fetid miasma of rotting meat filled the room. The couch was streaked with orange stains, colored like the platelet goo that pours from a peeled scab. I had to touch the stain. I had to know. The sticky substance stretched like melted cheese, clinging to the couch and my fingers as I pulled back my hand.
“It’s real all right,” said the ghost on the windowsill. As sunlight bled through the window, finally the apparition faded too. “See you around, Mikey,” he said, with a wink. “Keep up the good work.”
How do you defeat an enemy that can read your thoughts? He’d given me the answer inadvertently. I, the me that I have always known, I just needed to keep thinking. Bertie, his zombie deliveryman had asked no questions. Jenny and I had put up resistance.
How could any of this be real? I searched my memory for every speck of evidence that could support or refute the manticore. I thought back to my childhood, to the Sunday school I had been forced to attend, and I contemplated foolish literal ideas—like that the Hebrew forefathers had lived to such great ages because in the past the earth had spun more rapidly, yielding shorter years—and I compared them with more interesting metaphorical ones—like that the symbol of water becoming wine represented filling life with meaning. Real? Not real? Or was it both and so neither? What did my question even mean? For that matter, was I even real, given that, according to the manticore, I was a husk for some other thing that he was trying to consume. Who was I? I remembered everything I could. Then I called Jenny.
“Remember our first date?” I said. There was no need for banter or apology. “Remember when we discovered that fountain behind the movie theater across from Lincoln Center? Remember our first winter in New York, and how my coat was too thin and so you bought me that red lumberjack? Remember?”
She just responded with giggles. “Sure I do,” she said. “What’s gotten into you?” And her laugh descended into a purr.
I did not fall asleep. I just went on reading. I thought about Jenny, and I wondered if she had been reading the other stolen book, the tree of life. For once, David was silent. I wondered if my sleeplessness was a new stage of the manticore’s predation. First he had eaten my dreams. Then he had clawed into my reality. Now he was progressively consuming more of my consciousness. I read, barely understanding the words. He was looking for something that only he knew. But I was still there, sustained by my seven years of research; my love of searching for facts still burned. My eyes may have moved outside of my control, the words flooding past, streaks of ink without meaning, but inside, deep down, I still knew what I wanted. What is the manticore’s weakness?
The bestiary had so much to say about the monster. It was night again, and I was still turning pages when I heard a knock at the door. A new figure in a David Douglas uniform stood on the threshold. A hulk towered over me. His black hair was plastered over his forehead, and coupled with the way he wordlessly staggered into the apartment, he reminded me of Frankenstein’s monster. I was glad for the memory, and I repeated the name Frankenstein several times in my head while I tried to recall where I’d first seen that cultural icon. The giant lumbered past me, and I saw that he was dragging a plastic trash bag behind him. He stumbled to the kitchen and collided with the fridge. Then he fell into a crouch, tugged the fridge open and proceeded to toss apples, oranges, bags of salad, and Chinese food containers over his shoulder. He replaced these contents with his trash bag.
“A perfect symbol,” I stammered. My voice groaned from disuse. Still, I had expressed myself.
Frankenstein did not respond. A smile floated above his head. “Good one,” said the grin. Then my body spun on my heels. I could feel the external force maneuvering me. I was marched back to the circle of light—which I vaguely realized had never been my idea; he had designed his reading nook. Frankie showed himself out, while I fell to my knees before the bestiary.
David, why? You’ve got to trust your intuition, Jenny had said. A feeling deep below my thoughts was bubbling to the surface. That all containing memory shone forth, a thousand nights ago, a thousand nights together surrounded me. The dark wood floor on which I cowered sprouted mossy carpet. My sophisticated black leather couch rippled into blue corduroy. David, not a monstrous apparition, but my own conjuring, the memory of my friend sat on the couch. And he was laughing, truly. He did not ramble about mystical nonsense. He talked about movies and comic books. He told me about The Once and Future King. All the childishness from which I had withheld myself, the imaginative world beneath hard facts, the soul that has always animated the actions of every kind of man, that is what David shared with me, and he didn’t even need to say one word about it.
“It’s stronger when it’s a shared memory.” The manticore crouched beside me. Its putty-like face drooped, its lips depending in a fluid frown. Together we sat at the foot of ourselves, David and Mike on the old couch in Harlem, frozen in mutual laughter.
“But my feelings brought me here too,” said the manticore. Its emerald eyes rolled over and they stretched into cylinders before rippling back into orbs that stared down at the gnarled claws, green and striated like overgrown human fingernails.
“I wanted to know… everything. I wanted… to know.”
“Sure,” I said. “You’re only human.”
In the shadows there loomed figures: the hulking Frankenstein, the hollowed-out Bertie, and more gray-skinned, dull-eyed zombies, each character in their ridiculous uniform, a mockery of the real David Douglas. His soldiers carried bags, suitcases, boxes, and from each article there dripped something dark. The rotten smell was overwhelming.
“Too late now,” said the manticore. “No going back.” Again his eyes stretched as he pulled them to look upwards at the frozen image of himself on the old couch, head thrown back, bursting with joy.
“Tell that to him,” I said. The manticore’s face flowed towards me, the real me crouched beside him. I said, “I thought you had power. I thought you understood thought. I thought you were Mozart.”
“You don’t understand,” he began, but now I had my voice, and I wanted to speak. The feeling had broken free.
“Naturally,” I said. “How could an ape like me understand? But you do. Just look.” My hand shot forth, just as I directed it, to point to two friends sharing life.
“You want to destroy that?”
“I already have.”
“I have already… I figured out… I figured out….” It looked down at its claws again, and it turned over its left paw. The palm was webbed with wrinkles, and though the hand was thick and enormous, it was still human. “I figured it out,” he said.
I woke on the floor. The bestiary was open beneath me, a portrait of a unicorn serving for my pillow. Most of the lights in my circle had burned out, but the room was bursting with sunlight. Outside, the birds chirped their secret conversations.
I called Jenny. “I had it all along,” she said. The Assyrian tree of life was in her apartment, on the floor, in a circle of light, open to a diagram.
“I must have….” she said, breaking off. “I don’t know. I just don’t remember.”
Yes, Jenny was an artist. Her province was the realm of intuition. Maybe her feelings about the depictions of the mind beneath the world was what David had needed. He’d wanted my eyes. He needed her heart.
She may have forgotten, but I remembered. “Just slip it back,” I said. “Just leave it on a table, or in a gift shop bag, under a bench somewhere.”
“You’re unfazed. This book has been missing for months. I’m telling you, I’ve got it open in front of me. How could I… I mean….”
“Sleepwalking,” I said. “That’s the only explanation.”
“Into a locked vault? Miles from my apartment?”
“Life is full of mysteries.”
It was only after I had determined to carryout my plan of leaving the bestiary in the university library, in that sigh of relief, that I glanced at the fridge. The food was still strewn across the floor. But when I tugged the handle open, it revealed only blank space. A sickly sweet smell lingered. It was almost more troubling to me that the bags had vanished. Had he used the contents? Had he completed the manticore? No matter what, I knew one thing for certain: I was going to move.
It wasn’t long before the missing persons posters started to appear on the lamp posts and subway station walls. They found certain human remains along the bank of the Gowanus, and further up the coast in Long Island. They also found more intact bodies, and though I never saw the faces, I recognized the descriptions: six foot six, muscular, and another, thin, balding, with a French passport, Bertrand Vital. I still wonder how many more crimes that have since surfaced were associated with the actions of the manticore. Nobody ever came across the body of David Douglas, except for, I assume, some snakes and spiders, lizards and other creatures that crawl the jungle.
I know you won’t believe that any of this is real, despite the centuries of reports of human, animal hybrids, and the proliferation of monuments to lion gods around the world. I still wonder about that. There have been so many manticores—or whatever you want to call it—throughout the ages. How many are still out there? Because everywhere in the world there are pools of consciousness, places where men get together. They make plans. They act as one body. They speak a common tongue. Just whose thoughts are they thinking?
I wonder—and then I stop myself. Stick to the facts, man. That’s what you’re best at. Leave the speculation to the experts.
Jamie Holcomb lives in Los Angeles with his wife, cats, and newborn son. He is the co-creator and host of the live storytelling show “Ordinary Phreeeks.” Some of his fiction has appeared in Westwind Journal.