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Aaron Steinappfel

Many years ago there was published to great acclaim a volume of sentimental and self-congratulatory reminiscence of college days called My Harvard.  This volume was followed by a second, no less successful, volume called My Yale. Where the series went thereafter I do not know; but it prompted me to write the following memoir of my own undergraduate experience, at a very different university.

It was in November, 1973, in Chicago, that my money ran out. It was not, by then, the only thing that had run out. After three years at the University I had lost a great deal of my self-esteem. Romantic illusions I had none; these came, oddly enough, several years later. (I should say that I write this memoir as a distraction from a hopeless and desolating passion.) But where I had once thought of myself as an intellectual I now realized that I was perfectly incapable of sustained, consecutive or significant thinking. Of course, no sort of thinking at all is required to keep up the role of intellectual, or so I know now; but back then, the great books that filled me with wonder and despair also kept me honest—honest enough, at least, to see that my talents, not to mention my interests, lay outside of scholarship and culture and thought. But where they lay, at age twenty I hardly knew.

Such disillusion is no doubt a fairly common college experience. But the disappointments and frustrations universally visited upon youth were always magnified on this particular campus, where Aristotle’s dictum, that learning is pain, was taken literally and indeed made the organizing principle of the entire curriculum. I once asked a young professor why the school had to be so brutal—why every one of his colleagues, and he himself, were such assiduous classroom sadists. “What is instructive is destructive,” he replied instantly, in what I now recognize as a characteristic manipulation of terms—and the truth. And he added, “The purpose of this college is to destroy the student.”

They were good at it. But they had help. The school was not only located in Chicago, which was bad enough, but on the South Side, and in the middle of a savage ghetto. Never once in four years were we free of the sense of impending and unavoidable crime, of hopeless social injustice, of irremediable racial hate. And the climate was ferocious. If, in an unguarded moment, you were unlucky enough to get chilled, chilled you remained for eight months. The food, too, was bad—starchy, greasy, pasty—whatever faults food can have; though on this topic I am no expert, having lost my appetite one day in a university coffee shop, and having never quite regained it. And worst of all there was nothing to do—as regards social activities, the great grey campus was as sepulchral as the Medieval quads on which it had been modeled. A waste of life is how it all strikes me now—indeed, as it struck me even then; and perhaps the point about the place is that there passing psychological states such as this took root and endured. Youth, of course, has no perspective; but that is why its misery, like its exaltation in love, is the keenest that can be; because the purest. At least I have never felt anything as real, as objectified and intense as the self-disgust that overwhelmed me that November, when, to cap all my misfortunes, I was left without a penny to my name.

Very simply, I had overspent. Life, “in guerdon of my wrongs,” gave me two good friends—poor but good, I should say, and I was the banker of our various extravagancies. As the years go on I find myself exaggerating our depravities, which might in all honesty be called innocent depravities, for, though depravities they certainly were, they were undertaken not out of perversity or mindlessness, but simply as a somewhat hysterical attempt to escape the pressures of our surroundings. In any event they were expensive, especially if one were paying the passage for three: rent, food, alcohol, drugs, and, as it all soured, bail money and bribes. And here I must say a surprising thing: I never grudged a penny of what I spent. I care much less for money now than almost everyone I meet, but then, if recollection serves me, I cared for it not at all. What amazes me is that I once possessed a virtue, and one that my later life has taught me to think the rarest in the world—generosity. I spent with an unearthly, even an angelic profusion; although, to balance the record, I must add that the sums, by today’s standard, were not terribly significant.

The upshot was, I had to get a job. My friends had both been working since they were freshmen, while I had devoted all of my days to my studies. Not without profit, not without loss: for I had gone pretty deeply into a few ancient languages and literatures, the kind of study the world usually denominates “useless” but which I found to be very useful indeed; but I had lost my adolescent sharpness of vision, so that I now wore thick glasses. It was the glasses, I think, that got me the best student job then available, as a janitor in the Anatomy Department, for it turned out that the professor who was doing the hiring had exactly the same kind of frames that I had, the clear pink plastic kind that are nowadays so popular but which, in 1973, were not only not popular but positively offbeat.

This was the best job, I say, because though a janitor one was not hired through the University Buildings and Grounds department, but by Anatomy itself, and this had several advantages. They paid more, and they treated you better. I was introduced to the faculty at one of their regular Friday cocktail hours as a “new member of the Department,” and this egalitarian spirit was by no means affected: I was granted all the privileges of the place, invited to all the parties, treated with the sincerest collegiality and actually rejoiced in as a fellow laborer in the old science—all this, and I knew absolutely nothing about the subject, and they knew I knew nothing! Even today (especially today) I am at a loss to explain the democracy of those anatomists. Perhaps it was their post-mortem perspective. But more to the point, perhaps, was the particular status of the department. Though highly enough regarded, it was still considered something of an intellectual backwater. Gross anatomy had for many years yielded the academic spotlight to microbiology, and the young scientific hotshots apparently shunned the descriptive science as one that had already been exhausted. And indeed, most of the professors were elderly, and a good number of them were women—souvenirs of a time when aspiring female doctors were routinely shunted into less scandalous intimacy with dead bodies.

The work itself consisted in distributing deliveries and moving things from one laboratory to another. I have never been very strong, and at the time I was on the verge of physical collapse, but the distinguished professors always cheerfully assisted me in my labors. It was not the sort of place, after all, where you wanted to drop things: you could never be sure what would come spilling out. My predecessor resigned, for example, when a jugful of camel embryos slipped through his fingers. It was best, all in all, to move discreetly and remain incurious—always draw the dolly right up to the counter, never enter a room without knocking first, and leave the cabinets and refrigerators undisturbed. Even so, it was inevitable that you came across a cadaver, or more likely a piece of one, lying on a dissecting table or patiently pickling in a glass jar. This was bad at first, but it usually made for good stories afterwards, and was, as I told myself, at least better than vivisection. Gradually I took a kind of pride in my unflappability, though in truth loading a dolly was loading a dolly, whether the shipment was towels or, as was more frequently the case at Anatomy, human heads.

I was at one of the Friday gatherings that I first really talked to Noel Swedberg. In my two months in the Department I had seen him nearly every day, or rather heard him, for in the old stone building his laughter carried whole floors. I had encountered him directly only once before, when I was carrying a human head through one of the dark back corridors. “What have we here?” he asked drily, and proceeded to scrutinize the poor specimen with such solemnity that I half-thought he was going to extract it from its formaldehyde bath by its hair, and address it poetically. But he was mainly interested in the necrosis of the gums—he was a historian of medicine, and the subject of his recently completed doctoral dissertation had been the development of modern dental equipment. I think he hung around Anatomy merely out of love of the macabre. Nowadays I would be amused or disgusted by the human content of such enthusiasm, but back then I had enough purely intellectual curiosity to respect him for his devotion. And the history of medicine was, at that time, a truly fashionable subject, attracting semiologists, hermaneuticians and other intellectual agilists, and this gave him, in that small world at least, a bit of cachet. Certainly there was nothing prepossessing about his appearance: tall, gaunt, buck-toothed and hook-nosed. By the way, that description can stand for me, too—Swedberg and I looked a lot alike, and that, perhaps, was why we liked each other so well at that cocktail party, or sherry hour, to give it its official title, though no one was drinking sherry. In any event he brought a discussion of something or other (it was customary at Chicago to show off one’s deep knowledge of fields not one’s own, and this one, as far as I recall, belonged to neither of us, though from Swedberg’s look of self-contentment I think he thought that it was mine) to a rather inconsequential conclusion.

“So,” he said, “I hear you’re not squeamish.”

I disguised it pretty well, I replied.

“How would you like to work for me?”

“Doing what, exactly?”

“Well, I’ve got an appointment here,” he said, avoiding my eyes in what I took to be a very manful effort at modesty. Here, of course, would mean Chicago, and an appointment, coming so soon after completing his dissertation, was a remarkable achievement. It meant he must be “pretty good,” as we said, for it was a point of pride among us undergraduates never to grant that a graduate student could ever be much more than that. “There’s teaching, of course,” he went on, “but also a curatorship, and I need somebody to help me put the museum together. Right now it’s all in boxes.”

I remembered those boxes form an article in the campus paper. They were part of what was known as the Alberhay, an enormous bequest of money and materials relating to the history of medicine. The centerpiece, however, was not the museum, the housing and display of which, though a prime condition of Dr. Alberhay’s will, were generally viewed as an irrelevant burden. The real thing was the Alberhay Library, unquestionably the largest and finest collection of books and manuscripts pertaining to medical history in the world. So Swedberg had a reason for his modesty: I could guess that nobody in his department wanted the trouble of uncasing and mounting a few thousand old stethoscopes and scalpels, and so the job was passed to the younger man. Certainly the University was treating the old artifacts slightingly, burying them in a back room at the old Anthropological Museum, a building, as far as I knew, no one ever entered and which, in fact, was kept locked. Probably the stuffed monkeys and ratty headdresses with which student imagination had peopled the place had been shifted to make room for the old bones.

Well, I took the gig; it paid double my Anatomy wages, and ten dollars an hour was pretty good money in 1973—about as much as I make now, in fact. Besides, it was the first job I had ever been offered, that is without having first had to beg for it, and it went to my head. I am still given to flights of enthusiasm, and I still believe that Opportunity, with signs and portents, will someday change my life, so I find it hard to blame my younger self for turning a minor change of employment into a whole set of career plans. “Career”—how I hate that word now! But I didn’t hate it then: I was afraid of it.

I met Swedberg early the next day. He gave me a key to the building, and one to the Museum room, as we passed down the long corridor under a row of yellowed institutional hanging lamps. The room itself was an archaic affair, with a U-shaped gallery, through which we entered, running above a large wooden square. The two levels were connected by a tight spiral staircase, and the whole place pervaded by a sense of transition and unease. The glass cases, which ran floor to ceiling, were not merely empty but absolutely vacant, and I might have said resentful, for the fine old room had evidently been out of use for decades, and had probably come to consider itself no longer a museum but a monument to museology, or at least an artifact in its own right, and thus deserving of a few more centuries of undisturbed repose. I smiled at its sullenness, but the normally equitable Swedberg seemed irritated and huffy, the effect, no doubt, of the numerous old trunks and boxes that slept in the pit, which to him represented (as I thought then) a couple of years’ drudgery.

In any even the new curator had his museum all planned out, and the first few mornings’ work was to bring each trunk opposite the appropriate cabinet. Finally they all stood face to face, and eyed each other with what seemed to me a kind of complicity. And I was right; for as the Alberhay began to emerge piecemeal from its coffins, the artifacts turned out to have something of the intractable qualities of the double room.

“Just where do you suppose they got all this junk?” I asked one morning as I put the final touches on a collection of things relating to famous patients—a laryngeal mirror from a President’s secret operation, a Supreme Court Justice’s vesicle calculi, and so on.

“It’s an uneven collection I grant you,” replied Swedberg, as he crinkled his nose over a display of Roman, Greek and Assyrian paraphernalia. “It almost makes you believe the old story.”

“And what’s that?”

“Well, the Alberhays were an old Sephardic family—I say ‘were’ because they’re extinct now, that’s how we got the Library—and it’s said of them, or they say of themselves—said, I mean—that they had been doctors for two thousand years or more—a hundred unbroken generations of doctors.”

“Is it true?”

“Well, we do know of them practicing medicine in Cairo around 1150; then they turn up in Grenada, went to Venice at the expulsion, and ended up in Philadelphia by 1700.”

This sounded like a joke. But no, Swedberg explained, Philadelphia had long been one of the most distinguished medical centers in the world, and the Alberhays were famous there. “So that’s nine hundred years of practicing medicine,” he concluded.

“So you’re saying all this stuff is from their own practice—a family collection?”

“It’s supposed to be.”

I returned to my work with a new respect for the objects; they now seemed to testify to a noble, singleminded pursuit, carried on despite the vagaries and oppressions of centuries, or millennia, rather, since some of the objects went back pretty far.

“What do you make of these?”

Swedberg was staring at six shallow ceramic platters that he had carefully fished out of a cylindrical black box.

“Bleeding bowls?” I asked.

“Evidently, but they’re a lot different from the other ones in the collection.”

And so they were. The thirty bleeding bowls we had already mounted were mostly Eighteenth Century work, of variegated shape and refined glazes, often cheerfully decorated with pastoral scenes and floral patterns. This juxtaposition of ornament and purpose was clear enough proof that the Enlightenment way of thinking was not ours, and not enlightened—for a bleeding bowl was a bowl into which someone was bled, nothing more. By contrast these six bowls were primitive—dull, faded surfaces; overlarge; brittle. And the curious outlines of orange and green, now barely visible, seemed more like hasty and unsure markings than deliberate ornamentation:

“Cycladic,” I said.

“Hardly. But they do look old.”

And with that we left them lying on the glass counter. Real work awaited us. For the human specimens we now began unpacking were the true core of the Alberhay. And, as we discovered, the relatively benign pieces of medical equipment with which we had filled the gallery were hardly characteristic of the whole collection.

For in truth it was a museum of the incurably monstrous. Every catastrophe that could blast and distort the human figure was here: hydroencephalic heads; lungs rotted with mustard gas, still coated in a filthy brown scum; spines twisted into knots by Pott’s disease; cephalothoropagus monosymmetros, that is a double monster; an entire bleached skeleton showing the ravages of myositis ossificans progressiva, from which the ossified muscles hung like handkerchiefs; a brown lacquered osteosarcoma of the tibia, larger than a football.

Unloading these things made for depressing work—weeks of it. But the horrors themselves might have been borne, had it not been for a certain clinical laconism that marked the style of the index cards that accompanied each specimen: “hand of William Green, tuberculated leper;” “skeleton of a female. Result of tight lacing;” “necrosis of the face. From a case of lupus;” “skull showing syphilitic caries of the entire vault.” Even the normal, I discovered, could be raised to a kind of monstrosity by this mode of presentation. The Alberhay Skull Collection, for example, which purported to show facial variation, was indexed with comments such as these: “Ladislaw Czaky—cut his throat because of extreme poverty;” “Krista Braun—died of puerperal fever at Fiume;” “William Schley—hung himself.” Died of cholera in Trieste—died of small pox—committed suicide by potassium cyanide—of what possible use was such information? The fact that the skulls were skulls was enough to establish that the persons were dead. And how they died seemed to have very little to do with facial variation.

Indeed, as Swedberg and I penetrated deeper into the Alberhay, often stopping to read each other some particularly noisome caption (“avulsion of the finger”), I began to suspect that behind the laconism of the anonymous cataloguer, or cataloguers, lay levity, and behind that an almost inconceivable cruelty. Occasionally this would reveal itself in some vivid expression, or experiment. “Paget’s Disease of the skull is particularly striking by virtue of the irregular thickening of the skull,” read one card, “but the bone can be sliced by a knife, and the calvarium, when filled with water, leaks like a sieve.” But mostly the cruelty was present in the fact of the collection itself. Why gather these things? Their incredible multiplicity seemed to oppose any therapeutic attitude. And indeed, when, while mounting a two-foot-long ovarian cyst (“weight of liquid contents: 70 lbs.”), I joked that it was the doctor who missed the cyst and not the cyst itself that belonged in a museum, Swedberg informed me that the Alberhays, in Philadelphia at least, were famous advocates of therapeutic nihilism, a strange theory of medicine in which treatment was avoided because it interfered with diagnosis. But this attitude, I thought, itself needed explanation.

Such unpacking was the work of weeks, as I said, and naturally enough had a cumulative effect on both of us. Conversation all but stopped, and gave way, at least in my case, to a sort of furious puzzlement. First I smiled at the frankness; then I pitied the victims; then I speculated about the doctors; and at last I arrived where the collection wanted me to arrive, at an ultimate thing. For the museum seemed designed to raise the question, Ubi malum? Whence cometh evil? Or, to put it another way, how can such suffering exist? This is in one form or another the great theodical question, the rock equally of faith and denial, and if I raised it then it wasn’t because I had a particularly religious turn of mind, but simply because the specimens represented the first real suffering I had ever seen, even if it was seen, or perhaps precisely because it had to be seen, in the mind’s eye. Most of the misery we come into contact with, after all, is not only explicable but immediately so. Poverty, violence, hatred and the rest are social products. But disease and distortion and deformity and monstrosity are another business altogether, and in the Alberhay these were so allied to the grotesque as to countenance speculation that some horrible demon was still sporting his way through the world, killing us for fun. And if that were true, it was only natural to ask, how did he get here and who allowed him to go on?

No, such a museum should not exist, I finally concluded one morning in late April as I made my way to class. The short Chicago spring had come at last, and with it the eruption of student life, as busy and brief as a mayfly’s. Everywhere on the Quads students sprawled in the strong sunlight. Dogs barked; Frisbees flew; the jingle of an ice-cream truck played far off. To me, with just a Bachelor’s thesis to refine, May meant graduation and release. A good time to be happy! But as I paused there in the circular drive that marked the exact center of the campus my thoughts stood resolutely in the cold shade. Not only shouldn’t one go to such a museum, or unpack it, or accept it as a bequest, or house it, I thought; it simply should not be allowed to exist. But I had another thought too: that if it had to exist, then there was no better place for it than the University of Chicago. For that University was in many respects a place of death. The atomic bomb had been invented there, and the monument that marked the spot, half mushroom cloud and half skull, dominated the neighborhood, lending its hollow sockets to doomed lovers. Then there were the old rumors about the suicide pact across the Midway, where the whole floor of a dormitory slit their throats one warm October night—legend perhaps, but containing the vrai verite. And there were the Dioscuri of the campus, Leopold and Loeb, the torture murderers with whom every student at the University of Chicago perforce shared an alma mater. True, those two only killed one person, a pitiful account by today’s standards; but murders have a certain period gruesomeness; and the old cars, old suits and old rhetoric by which their crime is remembered give it a ghastliness beyond the reach of contemporary butcheries. And perhaps the glamour of the Alberhay was owing to something of the same cause. Beyond a few irremediable teratoids that stood ironically outside of all time, the museum had almost nothing from our own age of medical progress, and the spirit of accumulation that marked the place, random and wayward, in fact recalled the principle-less museums of earlier centuries. And this indeed made the whole thing worse: for the illusion of total incurability was maintained throughout. Or was it the modern illusion of total curability that made me think so? Perhaps the point of the collection was to raise that one corrosive question. For if the Alberhay was a period piece, its period was the whole of human history.

I didn’t go to class that morning. Nor did I go to work till late that afternoon. But in the end I went. My aversion to the Alberhay having reached bottom, so too did my attraction to the place reach its peak. I think now that I knew something was wrong the moment I entered the building. There was a faint smell of formaldehyde in the cold air. But the shock was reserved for the museum itself. The room had often struck me as being a kind of old photograph, what with the silvered glass, dark wood, grey light and white bones; but as I stood there in the gallery doorway I saw that into the regular sepia tones a color had intruded; and the color was blood. There was blood everywhere—on the cabinets, pooled on the rug, filling the bowls—and when I brought myself to look down into the pit I saw the long body of Noel Swedberg lying sprawled among the rest of the monstered dead.

I made myself run down the spiral staircase. My legs were like cold dough and as I stumbled down my right temple struck against one of the upper stairs. The pounding that momently broke out there made me think the whole room had acquired a dizzy, exultant heartbeat. My haste, in any event, was quite futile. Swedberg was entirely, and even elaborately, dead. He had slashed his wrists with the old Roman scalpel that lay nearby; but in the enthusiasm of his desperation even the gushing of those arteries had proved too slow, and he had sawed through his own neck, and with such spasmodic vigor that now only the bone kept the head attached to the trunk. Whatever gash he had inflicted there had evidently been worsened by his fall over the gallery railing, for he had come down chin first into our largest display case, shattering the glass and sending the exhibits scattering. The leprous hand lay exposed to the air next to his own. Our Siamese twin embryo was at my feet.

I went back to the staircase and sat down. I think I passed out; in any event it was some minutes before I called the campus police, and some hours before I was released from the scene. I had very little to contribute to their investigation. No, I hadn’t known Swedberg personally. No, he showed no signs of any special depression. No, I had no idea why he had done it. As far as I could see his action had no explanation; perhaps it needed none.

That night I got drunk. It seemed like the right thing to do; besides, alcohol had a mystique for me in those days, by which it put everything into an intelligible context. Swedberg’s suicide seemed comprehensible because getting drunk over it seemed comprehensible; it all seemed like part of a great tradition. I drank a lot then anyway, though it took me even longer than it does now to recover. I bade farewell to this particular hangover two days later, savoring its departure while sipping tea from a Styrofoam cup in one of the campus coffee shops, a narrow, low, noisy, chaotic student hangout where they allowed you to reuse your tea bag as many times as you could stand to. This economy appealed to me, even though tea usually made me sick to my stomach.

It was not the sort of place where one expected to run into Professor Trytomis. Or, for that matter, any professor, except the one or two pool sharks who occasionally used the tables downstairs. The Department of Greek, to which Trytomis belonged, made few concessions to students anyway; they taught that excruciating and necessary subject at such a killing pace that in my year only two of sixty-five students stuck out the ten-week introductory course. I was one of them, and how I did it I don’t know; I have a very precarious talent for languages, Indo-European languages at least, and I can only attribute my success in the Greek course to the enthusiasm I had as a freshman, which I must say vanished soon after. In any event knowing Greek gave me a little cachet, for it was the snob language of the University, and professors in all fields always got around to asking you if you knew it, and it was a pleasant bit of revenge to say yes. I wouldn’t have said it to Trytomis, though; none of the Greek students would have; for he was reputed to know more Greek than anyone, anywhere, ever. Certainly his course offerings bore this out. His main subject was Byzantine Greek, and his approach fabulously obscure and technical. Every quarter he remorselessly announced what he would be teaching, and his course descriptions were always the most elaborate in the catalogue, but he never actually allowed anyone to study with him. Teachers who didn’t teach were a frequent enough occurrence at Chicago, but few made such a masquerade of it as this. That semester, for example, he had offered the Text of Proclus, and on a dare one advanced graduate student signed up; but he dropped out after the required half-hour interview with the professor, who managed to make it clear, despite the arid civility said to be his custom, that the student wasn’t quite ready to study with him, and wouldn’t be in a hundred years.

Trytomis rarely came to campus; he had been pointed out to me once in a hallway, which was why I recognized him now, though to be sure he was a perfect stick-out among the dozing, disillusioned young—six and a half feet tall, powerful frame, orange-yellow skin stretched tightly over immense hands and bald head. He took no trouble to hide his disgust with the coffee shop, and watching him maneuver haughtily through the scattered chairs and long tables little inclined me to hide mine. I was staring into my grey tea when I noticed that he had stopped at my table.

“Mr. Steinappfel?”

I looked up then.

“Allow me to join you.”

Sitting down he was far more overbearing. The impression of fastidious reserve disappeared, replaced by an almost sinister emanation of will. Something I have never lost is my shyness; and now I could almost feel my voice disappear in my throat.

“I am Trytomis. We have never met.”

“No,” I replied.

“Pardon me?”

“No, we haven’t.”

“I am trustee to the Alberhay Bequest, and I must know whether you intend to continue your work in the museum.”

I hesitated then; it was simply not something I had given any thought to. I had not consciously believed that the whole machine would stop with Swedberg’s death, but I realize now that I had expected it to slow down enough for me to be graduated and gone by the time such a small matter as my assistance came to be considered. But disaster was so familiar a thing at the school that the mechanism of cover-up was always limber; the suicide had gone unreported on and off campus, and perhaps I was being pressed back into service merely to maintain the unbroken surface of normality.

“Yes, I’ll continue,” I said at last, and this time Trytomis inclined his great head to pick up my near whispers.

“Very well. I have had the mess cleaned up and the specimens returned to their jars. You need only continue the mounting. I believe the late Doctor made his plans clear to you? You may resume tomorrow.”

And with that he left. It took me a few minutes to get over this encounter—my hands were shaking—and only then did I question my decision. It seemed indecent to carry on as if Swedberg had not gashed himself to death two days earlier. But I knew even then that this reservation came from cold moral considerations, and not from any real depth of feeling. Despite starting out bravely, my relations with Swedberg had never progressed very far toward intimacy. What’s more, I felt insulted by his suicide—as if he had been keeping secrets. Only when I resolved the dilemma in this peevish way did it strike me that Trytomis was a rather odd choice to direct the Alberhay. As far as I knew he was not a medical historian or bibliographer. But it was never wise to underestimate the learning of such a man. And besides, the library was said to be mostly Greek.

The Alberhay had indeed been restored to order by the time I returned the next day. Still, I hesitated before plunging into what little work remained. Without the presence of another human being the place seemed even more pregnant than before—the room more contemptuous, the collections more pertinacious in raising their malignant questions. And I had the uncomfortable feeling that empty rooms can sometimes give, that my blundering entrance had interrupted something. I lingered on the gallery, slowly going over the cases of old medical equipment, which were in any case less hideous than what awaited me in the pit. They were horrible enough, though. Perhaps there is no word in the language, I thought, more sinister than “instrument.” Indeed, the whole nomenclature of the displays filled me with disgust and a sense of the bleakness of things—trephines, exfoliators, clumsy lead holders “for applying radium beneath the eyelid”—the old curettes and perforators from Pompeii—the very jagged scalpel Swedberg had used, and which I now hefted idly in my hand. But my attention was arrested by the six old bleeding bowls that still lay placidly on the counter. When I had last seen them they were filled with Swedberg’s blood—some kind of dire joke, I had thought—but as I examined them now, it became clear that their bath had wrought changes in them. The curious patterns were far more boldly defined; and the colors, once so faded, were vibrant and clashing, so that they seemed to wriggle and pulse. I outlined the patterns once with my finger. The glazes seemed almost to grow moist beneath my touch.

The fountain of blood that shot from my right wrist was not what I remember expecting at all. It came out very slowly, as if pulled erect by a string, like a streamer. I was annoyed, too, at having overshot the target. I directed the left wrist somewhat better. But it was all too slow. It is all going too slowly, I thought; why is it all going so slowly? I believe the knife was on its way to my throat when a giant yellow hand closed on mine, and I felt myself wrenched back from the gallery railing. Just before I fainted I looked up and saw Trytomis’s face registering what even at that juncture I knew to be nothing at all. But he bent his ear to my lips.

“Letters,” I said, and then I said no more.

They let me out of the hospital ten days later. I mentioned that cover-ups were a regular thing on this campus, and this one proceeded effortlessly—I was pleased, in fact, to be at the center of it, and thus relieved of any real inquiry. Everyone played their part consummately—the Italian Department, in accepting my thesis draft as final, and even graduating me with honors; Trytomis, who visited me on behalf of the Bequest, only to be turned away by my delirious condition. But my own performance was the best. I told the psychiatrist exactly what he expected to hear, and did it so naturally that I wondered whether the only thing I had learned at that school, or was taught there, was how to lie. I had been depressed for months, I said; had a horror of completing my studies, and so had thrown myself into various student jobs; was in terror of leaving the familiar campus and plunging into the alien and hostile world; and so on. I broke down once or twice during the interviews, and that loaned some credibility to my tale. The psychiatrist nodded hurriedly at each of my revelations. It was a familiar condition in graduating seniors, he said. And he pronounced his diagnosis: suicidal depression caused by separation anxiety, and aggravated by alcoholic malnutrition.

I took my bandaged wrists to Trytomis’s apartment. He lived, of course, in one of the better buildings in the neighborhood, literally across the railroad tracks and thus near the Lake. His door was opened by a woman, which surprised me. But she showed me to the professor’s study, predictably book-lined and dark. Trytomis rose gigantically from his desk and showed me to a chair.

“Marta, a glass of water for the young man.”

She returned with it a minute later, and I took it clumsily between my palms. Then she left us alone.

“So,” Trytomis began, “you have come to thank me for saving your life.”

“Having first risked it,” I replied.

“Yes. But I wanted to see. Many years ago I had obtained permission to use the Alberhays’ library, and I was struck by the high proportion of questionable materials included among the more traditional tomes. In certain circles, you see, the family’s reputation was not good.” He did not say what circles these were.

“The bowls,” I said. “Who made them?”

“The Alberhays.”


“Oh, they are terrifically ancient. But I am almost certain that they are Antiochene, from the Fourth Century B.C. at the latest. I realize now that the name Alberhay in this case is a corruption of ‘bar gera’—the ‘al’ is an Arabic prefix—itself a corruption of ‘egara’. That is the Syriac for ‘rooftop’.”

This seemed a gigantic revelation; and it was only several years later that I discovered that the “corruption” spoken of here (really a matter of apocopation and elision) is quite impossible. There are other problems with this interpretation, too, as you will see, but I still think it is essentially correct—the Alberhays had been doctors for twenty-five hundred years in order to appease the bowls.

“But come,” Trytomis said, rising. “I wish to ask you a question.”

He led me intoa small room adjoining the study. It was, I saw, a kind of museum in its own right, crawling with artifacts of malign appearance, and God knows what function. And there, in a glass case, securely locked, were the six bleeding bowls of the Alberhay Museum.

“They are quite harmless here,” he said.

“So they are,” I replied.

He looked at me closely. “Do you remember what you said to me before you fainted that day?”


He paused, considering. And then he asked, “Do you know Greek?”

I couldn’t help it; I laughed. And I kept laughing. To hear that familiar, pedantic question in these circumstances filled me with endless hilarity. I shook my sides; I roared; I realized in a flash that whatever happens is redeemed by the truth it contains. I think he thought I was becoming hysterical, for he asked me sharply, “What do the letters say?”

“σηψιδι,” I replied, still laughing.

“Yes, ‘To the Unclean One,’ is perhaps the best translation. This is my reason for deriving the old Syriac word ‘egara’ from the word ‘Alberhay.’ In old Syria demons were worshipped on the flat roofs of houses, and it seems that they were most powerful at the turn of the month.”

“Very well,” I replied, taking on unconsciously some of his pedantic tone, “but let us do what Swedberg undoubtedly did just before he died—or rather, let us not do it. Switch these bowls here and give this one a quarter twist down. What do you have then?”

He was silent for some minutes. “My God!” he breathed at last. “διψωσι.”

“Yes,” I said. “‘They thirst’.”