Head in a Bottle ~ A Short Story by Allen Kopp
(I posted this story in September 2013 with a different title.)
A girl named Oubliette lived with her grandmother in a remote mountain area in the wildest part of a wild state. The house they lived in was older than anybody could remember and had a hundred or more rooms. Oubliette loved the house, as it was the only home she had ever known. She felt safe and happy there, knowing she never had to venture out into the world. Grandmother had taught her that the world is an ugly and evil place, with myriad dangers waiting to snare the unsuspecting, and those who live apart from it are the luckiest people alive.
Oubliette didn’t miss going to school the way other children do because she always had plenty to do to keep her body and mind occupied. The house was filled with many interesting things. One enormous room on the top floor was filled with specimens floating in formaldehyde in large bottles. One bottle held a pair of smiling Siamese twins that appeared to be hugging. Oubliette liked to think of them as living in the bottle. She was sure they were as happy in their snug little world as she was in hers. Another bottle that she was always drawn to held the head of a man with his hair floating out from his head like seaweed. His eyes were open wide and his lips were parted as if he had been trying to speak at the moment his head was severed from his body. What exactly had he been going to say? Oubliette liked to put her ear against the cold glass next to his mouth in the hope that she would hear him speak but she never did. It was a tantalizing mystery, though.
Other bottles held a heart, a liver, a brain, eyes, and a set of lungs, not to mention a dodo bird that had been extinct for hundred of years, an octopus, a python snake, side-by-side scorpion and tarantula, a dinosaur egg that was millions of years old, a coelacanth, baby shark and alligator, and on and on. Not in jars but in opposite corners of the room as if they were keeping watch were two complete human skeletons suspended from hooks. The room and everything in it was as familiar and beloved to Oubliette as her own hand.
Another part of the house was filled with departed family members who had walked the earth long before Oubliette was born. One of Grandmother’s sons, the one she didn’t like to talk about very much, had been a taxidermist. His name was Sheridan and he was Oubliette’s great uncle. He had left home many years ago and nobody knew anymore if he was even still alive. Instead of stuffing animals as most taxidermists do, Uncle Sheridan stuffed deceased family members. It had become a sort of tradition in the family that when one died one would be stuffed and mounted instead of being buried in the ground the way most dead people are. And Sheridan prided himself on the lifelike appearance of his subjects: Uncle Julius, for example, was dressed in evening dress, cape and top hat and was just stepping from a carriage as he did so often in life. Baby Margaret sat up in her perambulator, eyes shining and mouth opened slightly in baby laughter, showing tiny, pearl-like teeth. Grandfather Beauchamp sat in his favorite armchair beside a stock ticker, carefully studying the narrow stream of paper issuing from it. Cousin Grace was dressed in a shimmering gown as Juliet, a part she had triumphed in on the stage. Uncle Cowan, a gifted musician in life (killed by a lightning bolt at age 19), was playing the violin with a look of intense concentration. His sister, Marigold, was sitting at a vanity table brushing her golden hair. Aunt Clytemnestra, Grandmother’s sister, sat at a writing table with pen poised over paper. (She had been a celebrated writer of serials for women.) Eccentric cousin Ludlow, a member of a circus in life, was dressed as a clown with white face paint, a round red nose and a huge grinning mouth. Cousin Melba on Grandfather’s side of the family was on her knees with her hands folded in front of her in an attitude of prayer, asking for forgiveness because she had taken her own life. Melba’s husband, Gustave, having been a doctor, was dressed in a medical gown, with a stethoscope around his neck and a raven on his shoulder (why a raven, nobody could say). Grandmother’s daughter, Meredith (she died on her sixteenth birthday of a brain hemorrhage), was sitting in a rocker beside a birdcage with a book in her hand, looking exactly as she had looked on the day before she died.
Oubliette loved every one of them as if they were alive. She had come to understand at an early age that “dead” is a relative term. Just because you are “dead” in one place doesn’t mean you are “dead” in all places. There are the unseen worlds that living people aren’t supposed to know about. Her only sorrow was that Uncle Sheridan wouldn’t be there to stuff her and Grandmother when their time came. She supposed they would just have to go into the ground the way ordinary dead people do.
She worried sometimes about Grandmother. Nobody knew exactly how old she was, but she had to be over a hundred. Recently she had stopped doing many of the things she loved to do and had taken, about every other day, to staying in bed all day. That wasn’t like her at all. She probably needed a doctor but didn’t like doctors and wouldn’t allow one in the house. She said the only doctor worth anything was nature. When it was her time to go to the other world, she would go, without having any quack doctors fussing around her and expecting to be paid for it.
Oubliette refused to think about Grandmother leaving her. She knew that everybody leaves the corporeal world for the ethereal one, but she somehow believed it wouldn’t happen to Grandmother as long as Oubliette needed her to be there with her. Grandmother was, after all, her only loved one and the only person she had ever spoken to in all her life. They were like two separate parts of the same body. As much as she loved the specimens in the bottles, the skeletons, and the stuffed family members, they were really nothing without Grandmother. She had come to be of the opinion that when Grandmother left the corporeal world, she was going to leave it too.
Grandmother had been thinking along the same lines. One day at tea time she asked Oubliette to come into her bedroom and have tea with her because she had something she wanted to talk to her about.
“I taught you the story of Adam and Eve,” Grandmother said, propped up with a mountain of pillows on her bed.
“Yes,” Oubliette said.
“We all die because of them.”
“Do you know how old I am?”
“The clock is winding down for me, as it does for all of us. The moment we are born, we begin to die.”
“I suppose that’s true,” Oubliette said.
“I’ve given you a good life, haven’t I?”
“Have you thought about what your life will be after I’m gone?”
“Because you are so young, the do-gooders will come and get you.”
“And do what with me?”
“They’ll make you a ward of the state. They’ll put you in a home for children without families where you will have to associate with riff-raff the likes of which you cannot even imagine.”
“Can you explain ‘riff-raff’ to me?”
“Girls with bugs and diseases. Filthy-minded boys who want to take away your innocence.”
“That’s not going to happen.”
“No, indeed, it will not, if I have anything to say about it.”
“You’re not going to die,” Oubliette said. “You’ll still be here twenty years from now when I’m a grown-up person.”
“We both know that’s not true,” Grandmother said. “I’ve already lived longer than any person has a right to live.”
“What can I do about it?”
“In the corner of your medicine cabinet in your bathroom you will find a tiny bottle.”
“What’s in it?”
“Some white powder to be mixed with water and ingested. I’ve been told it is instantaneous and absolutely painless.”
“It is, of course, completely up to you whether or not you use it. I know you’re a smart girl and will make the right decision.”
“Do you want me to try to contact Uncle Sheridan to come home and do for you what he did for the others?”
“Sheridan’s dead,” Grandmother said. “I saw it in a dream.”
Grandmother lived for a few more months but finally, one day in the spring, she departed this life, in her own bed, with Oubliette beside her holding her hand.
After a period of mourning lasting one day, Oubliette wrapped Grandmother carefully in a pink blanket like a mummy, using large safety pins, and pulled her off the bed onto the wheelchair. She rolled her into the specimen room and dumped her into a large vat of formaldehyde that she had made ready and sealed it shut as fast as she could.
She wasn’t ready to accept that Uncle Sheridan was dead, anymore than she was ready to accept that Grandmother was going into the ground and she would never see her face again. She would find him and make him come home. Since the two of them shared the same blood, she believed that a bond must exist between them, no matter how slight. She would contact him any way she could.
She called every newspaper in the telephone book (five of them) and placed an ad in the “personals” section of each one: Uncle Sheridan, please come home. Grandmother needs you. Signed, Oubliette.
Of the private investigators in the book, she called the one with the nicest-sounding name, Byron Montague, and asked him to conduct an investigation to find Uncle Sheridan, who might be anyplace in the world, if not dead. Byron Montague asked her many questions, most of which she couldn’t answer, but he agreed to explore every avenue and to send her a bill with the results of the investigation as soon as it was completed.
But that wasn’t all. Being a firm believer in the power of the occult, she conducted a séance. She had only a vague idea of what a séance should be, but she did the best she could with what she had. At midnight in the room with the stuffed family members, she sat before a mirror with a lighted candle between her and the mirror. She stared into the flame until it was the only thing that existed for her in the world. Putting both hands to her temples, she willed (a kind of praying) with all her might to enlist the aid of the departed.
“If Uncle Sheridan is there,” she said, “give me a sign. If he’s not there and is still among the living, let him know in any way you can that he’s needed at home.”
The candle went out at that moment in a room that was absolutely airtight, but she didn’t know what it meant. Was it the sign she asked for that Uncle Sheridan dwelt in the land of the dead, or was it an acknowledgment that she was getting through? The results were inconclusive and unsatisfying.
The next night she climbed all the steps in the house with a hundred rooms to the little flat place on the roof that in olden times had served as a lookout. When she was younger, she loved the lookout because it was so secret and private a place and was impossibly high off the ground. She used to spend hours there in agreeable weather reading a book, surrounded by her dolls and stuffed animals, or looking off into the distance, wondering vaguely what the world out there was really like. Whenever Grandmother couldn’t find her, she always looked for her on the lookout.
A light rain was falling but she didn’t mind. She had always liked the rain and, since it had been an especially warm day, it felt cooling on her skin. She looked into the sky and spoke a prayer to God (if God was anywhere, he had to be there) to send Uncle Sheridan home to her. He could stuff Grandmother the way she deserved to be stuffed and he could keep the do-gooders from taking Oubliette to an orphanage with all the riff-raff. It didn’t seem like a lot to ask.
She caught a terrible cold after that, but she didn’t mind very much. She stayed in bed for three days, napping and reading and wishing that Grandmother was there to keep a watch on her temperature and fix her tempting things to eat.
Weeks went by. She recovered from the cold and kept herself busy in the big, silent house, but she missed Grandmother terribly. She had never understood loneliness before. Now nothing was the same. She took to sleeping on a pallet on the floor of the specimen room next to the vat that held Grandmother, with the smiling Siamese twins at her head and the octopus at her feet.
Summer went by slowly and then it was autumn again. Oubliette was as low as she had ever been in her brief life. She couldn’t stand the thought of a winter alone in the house with its howling wind over the mountain and its dark, abbreviated days.
The day came when she didn’t even bother to get out of bed at all. She slept through the day, dreaming pleasant dreams about Grandmother and the way it used to be, and woke up in the early evening to the dark reality of her life. She knew she had reached the end of her tether and it was time to take the powder.
She cleaned herself up, combed her hair and washed her face, and put on her best nightgown that Grandmother made for her and gave her as a Christmas present the Christmas before she died. She filled a glass with water and took the little bottle of powder out of the medicine cabinet and emptied it into the water. She waited for the powder to dissolve and then drank it down.
She didn’t know how long she had so she hurried and got back into bed and pulled the covers up to her chest. Soon she began to feel a pleasant drowsiness and she knew the powder was taking effect. Her last thought before she passed over into that other realm was that it would be years before anybody found her body and when they did she would be a skeleton in the bed, with mice running in and out of her eye sockets. Maybe her ghost would haunt the house and people would be afraid to come anywhere near it, a prospect she found thoroughly enchanting.
She fell into the oblivion of sleep. Hours later (or was it minutes?) when she awoke she knew that something in the room had fundamentally changed but she didn’t know what it was. She sat up in bed and, turning on the light, saw a man standing at the foot of the bed looking at her. He had a black moustache and green eyes, the same color eyes as Uncle Cowan’s. She took that as a very good sign.
“Uncle Sheridan?” she said.
The man took his derby hat off and held it in his hand. “No,” he said.
“Am I dead or am I dreaming?” she asked.
“Any one of us could ask that very same question,” he said.
She pushed back the covers and swung her legs over the side of the bed, caring nothing about modesty. “If you’re not Uncle Sheridan,” she said, “who are you?”
“Does the name Byron Montague mean anything to you?”
“The private investigator?”
“One and the same.”
“Did you find Uncle Sheridan?”
“No, I didn’t. I’m sorry.”
“How did you know where to find me?”
“You gave me your address to send you my bill, remember?”
“You deliver your bill in person?”
“This is the first time.”
“My next question might be to ask why you are in my room in the middle of the night and if you are really here or if I am only imagining it.”
“It’s difficult to explain.”
“Do the best you can.”
“After I spoke to you on the phone, I started thinking a lot about your situation. It wasn’t what you told me that concerned me but what you didn’t tell me. I knew that you needed help and it came to me that I was the one to help. When I tried to put it out of my mind, it always came back to me, as if I was being impelled in some way, but who or what impelled me, I couldn’t say.”
“How did you even get through the front door? It’s always locked.”
“I knocked repeatedly and when nobody came I was about to leave when the thought occurred to me that a key might be hidden somewhere. People very often do that, you know. I started looking around and found a key high up in a tiny niche—more a crack, really—to the right of the door. I had come this far, so I just had to come inside and look around, although I might have been taken for a burglar and shot.”
“You’re not a taxidermist are you?” she asked. “In addition to being a private investigator?”
“Yes, I am,” he said. “How did you know?”
“Have you ever stuffed dead people instead of animals?”
“Well, once or twice,” he said, “but I think as a practice it’s generally looked down upon.”
“I have something I want to show you,” she said.
She put on her dressing gown and took him into the room with the stuffed family members. At first he thought he was looking at wax figures until he put his face up against their faces and sniffed them like a dog.
“This is very good work,” he said. “Quality craftsmanship.”
“I’ll bet you’ve never seen anything like it before.”
“No, indeed, I have not. Who did it?”
“I get a chill when I look at them. They’re dead yet still they live. They ought to be in a museum.”
“We would never agree to display them in a museum, Grandmother and me.”
“Is she here now?”
“She’s waiting just down the hall. If you come with me, I’ll take you to her.”
Copyright © 2014 by Allen Kopp