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Authors: Norman Lock

The Port-Wine Stain

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P
RAISE FOR
N
ORMAN
L
OCK

“[Norman Lock's fiction] shimmers with glorious language, fluid rhythms, and complex insights.” —
NPR

“One could spend forever worming through [Lock's] magicked words, their worlds.” —
The Believer

“[Lock's writing] lives up to Whitman's words . . . no other writer, in recent memory, dares the reader to believe there is a hand reaching out to be held, a hand to hold onto us.” —
Detroit
Metro Times

“Lock is a rapturous storyteller, and his tales are never less than engrossing.” —
Kenyon Review

“One of our country's unsung treasures.” —
Green Mountains Review

“Our finest modern fabulist.” —
Bookslut

“A master storyteller.” —
Largehearted Boy

“[A] contemporary master of the form [and] virtuosic fabulist.” —
Flavorwire

“[Lock's] window onto fiction [is] a welcome one: at once referential and playful, occupying a similar post-Borges space to . . . Stephen Millhauser and Neil Gaiman.” —
Vol. 1 Brooklyn

“[Lock] is not engaged in either homage or pastiche but in an intense dialogue with a number of past writers about the process of writing, and the nature of fiction itself.” —
Weird Fiction

“Lock's work mines the stuff of dreams.” —
Rumpus

“You can feel the joy leaping off the page.” —
Full Stop

“Lock plays profound tricks, with language—his is crystalline and underline-worthy.” —
Publishers Weekly

“[Lock] writes beautifully, with many subtle, complex insights.” —
Booklist

“[Lock] successfully blends beautiful language reminiscent of 19th-century prose with cynicism and bald, ugly truth.”
—
Library Journal

“Lock writes some of the most deceptively beautiful sentences in contemporary fiction. Beneath their clarity are layers of cultural and literary references, profound questions about loyalty, race, the possibility of social progress, and the nature of truth.” —
Shelf Awareness

“Lock's stories stir time as though it were a soup . . . beyond the entertainment lie 21st-century conundrums: What really exists? Are we each, ultimately, alone and lonely? Where is technology taking humankind?” —
Kirkus Reviews

“All hail Lock, whose narrative soul sings fairy tales, whose language is glass.” —
Kate Bernheimer,
editor of
xo Orpheus: Fifty New Myths, My Mother She Killed Me, My Father He Ate Me
, and
Fairy Tale Review

“[Lock] has an impressive ability to create a unique and original world.”
—Brian Evenson,
author of
Immobility
and
A Collapse of Horses

“Lock is one of our great miniaturists, to be read only a single time at one's peril.” —
Tim Horvath,
author of
Understories

“A writer exquisite in the singularity (read for this ‘genius') of his utterance.” —
Gordon Lish

O
THER
B
OOKS IN
T
HE
A
MERICAN
N
OVELS
S
ERIES

American Meteor

The Boy in His Winter

A
LSO
BY
N
ORMAN
L
OCK

Love Among the Particles
(stories)

First published in the United States in 2016 by Bellevue Literary Press, New York

For information, contact:

Bellevue Literary Press

NYU School of Medicine

550 First Avenue

OBV A612

New York, NY 10016

© 2016 by Norman Lock

This is a work of fiction. Characters, organizations, events, and places (even those that are actual) are either products of the author's imagination or are used fictitiously.

Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data

Lock, Norman, 1950–

The port-wine stain: with an unfinished tale by Edgar A. Poe / by >Norman Lock.—

First edition.

pages; cm

I. Title.

PS3562.O218P67

2016

813'.54—dc23

2015030706

All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, including photocopy, recording, or any information storage and retrieval system now known or to be invented, without permission in writing from the publisher, except by a reviewer who wishes to quote brief passages in connection with a print, online, or broadcast review.

Bellevue Literary Press would like to thank all its generous donors—individuals and foundations—for their support.

The New York State Council on the Arts with the support of Governor Andrew Cuomo and the New York State Legislature

This project is supported in part by an award from the National Endowment for the Arts.

Book design and composition by Mulberry Tree Press, Inc.

First Edition

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2

ebook ISBN: 978-1-942658-07-8

For Edward Renn,

Doppelgänger and Friend

Contents

PART ONE

PART TWO

The Port-Wine Stain

Acknowledgments

About the Author

          
True!—nervous—very, very dreadfully nervous

          
I had been and am; but why
will
you say that

          
I am mad? The disease had sharpened my

          
senses—not destroyed—not dulled them.

                   
—“The Tell-Tale Heart,” Edgar Allan Poe

PART ONE

       
. . . I have been, in some measure, the slave of circumstances beyond human control.

—“William Wilson,” E. A. Poe

Camden, New Jersey, April 22, 1876

T
HOMAS
E
AKINS
'
S
PAINTING
, accounted famous by those who can appreciate it, of Dr. Gross's clinic at Jefferson Medical College in Philadelphia has always given me the horrors. Not the reeking hands of the surgeons nor the raw ensanguined flesh exposed on the young boy's thigh disturbs me—by 1875, I was inured to gory scenes, having served in the Union army medical corps during the War of Secession—no, it's not the blood, but the general murk above the harshly lit operating theater where the students sit, in attitudes of boredom or indifference, observing the removal of the diseased portion of the boy's femur, that makes me anxious. To gaze at them, at the death masks of faces rendered brutal by smears of paint, calls up in me a sensation of dread, as if I were straining to raise something repellent from the lightless depths of memory—a thing too blighted for the light of day, belonging to nightmares or to one of Poe's ghastly tales. That the man sitting in the third row, at the far left
side of the painting, is, in fact, me makes matters worse. I shiver to see myself depicted in that grim scene like a callow student during his first amputation.

I knew Poe, in Philadelphia. Some thirty years ago, we were often in each other's company. I was not much more than a boy. . . .

Eakins made me look ten years younger than the fifty I was—not to satisfy any vanity of my own (I have none), but to ensure that I wouldn't stand out among the young men in the gallery. In the painting, which is a large one, the hair and mustache are as you see them now, only not so grizzled, and, as you can also plainly see, my posture is poor; it belongs to a man who has carried his share of burdens, or labored under more than his share of delusions. I never did carry myself well, not even when I was a young man at large in the streets of Philadelphia, eager to make something of myself.

Have you seen the painting, Moran?

No? Well, if you have the stomach for it, which a man like you must, it's hanging in the Army Post Hospital nearby the centenary exhibition. The selection committee—backbiting gentlemen artists, most of them—consigned it to that “quarantine” rather than the public galleries, so as not to offend the lady visitors by its frankness. As I said, I've reasons of my own to dislike the painting, but something compels me to look at it. I've stood in front of that appalling canvas half a dozen times already. I'm drawn to peer into the gloom of its recesses—secret recesses, I would almost say—and wonder.

At what?

I don't know, precisely. That's the wonder of it. Oh, let's say—to say something—that I'm enthralled by what's there . . . or isn't. I—I hate the bloody thing and, at the same time, am fascinated by it. It appalls me, Moran; it scares the living daylights out of me. I mentioned the strange effect his painting has on me to Eakins. I wanted to know—in my bafflement, I almost shouted at him inside the Philadelphia Club's card room. I had to know what he meant by that noxious gloom, that mud of color—too damned drab to be called color!—in which he'd posed me with my chin on my cravat, my eye sockets black and empty, as though pecked clean by ravens. The young men ranged about me fare no better. We're, all of us, enveloped in a miasma as septic, to my mind, as the poor wretch's thighbone. The operation, by the way, had not been staged for the painting; the boy and his wound were real. I tell you, Moran, the scene was a perfect horror! No wonder the boy's mother, sitting in her black dress near the great god of the scalpel, Gross, hid her head in her arm. I can't look at the thing without shuddering.

But you don't want to hear about my hysteria—unbecoming to a medical man—or about Eakins's painting, great as it undoubtedly is. You want to hear about Edgar Poe, how I came to know him and how he initiated me into the occult.

Yes, Moran, I said “occult.” Poe ushered me, as it were, to the iron door of the tomb and bid me knock. He showed me a world, ashen and forlorn, seen by greasy torchlight. He taught me the true meaning of self-effacement, the loss of one's own being in another's dream—one so vivid that it threatened the balance of my reason. His morbid curiosity,
piqued by the insistence of his art, caused me to doubt my own existence. Poe, Eakins—from what I know of artists, they are an unscrupulous lot. They'll do whatever's necessary to lay open the abscesses of——

Do you believe in a soul, Moran? I do, although not as Christians do, or heathens, either, for all I know of them. I believe in the soul as it might be an organ of the body whose function is to persist beyond the body's natural span, to gain for the body a kind of fame or infamy, which is an afterlife, of sorts. As in the case of any organ, the soul can become diseased. While I knew him, he made me see—Poe did; made me understand that, unlike a bodily organ, the soul desires, even wills, its own continuance. It can be said to be the seat of will and desire and, in its necrotic state, the root of evil. Evil is
real
, Moran. I know it. A Sunday school lesson or one of Cotton Mather's gaudy rants that helped to kindle the Salem bonfires is nearer to the truth of it than a fable by Poe, Hawthorne, or Melville. Evil's a malignancy beyond the skill and scalpel of even Dr. Gross to heal or extirpate. Words are as powerless against it as a witch doctor's incantation. And yet we heed them—thrill to them—glory in their ardent particles and claim enlightenment. What's Ahab and his white whale beside the slaughter of the buffalo,
The Last of the Mohicans
beside the Cherokees' Trail of Tears, the Inquisition of “The Pit and the Pendulum” beside the lynching of a negro or the burning of a witch? A symbol is no more than a clean bandage on an ugly cut, and yet we live by them and only sometimes do we realize their falsity. A story—a hook, a barb, each word a knot—it captures us;
it captured me. A young man, I became enmeshed in one by Edgar Poe.

Strange how a vile thing can seduce our minds as well as our lower natures. The caricaturists misunderstand evil, for, more often than not, it has a pleasing face, or at least an ordinary one. Corruption is seldom visible on the faces of the living. If seen at all, it is like a ragged petticoat trailing below a fancy skirt or the painted face of a hag or whore concealing the pox. Devils do not bear the outward sign of the Beast, but wear its token like a Masonic ring. If only sin were ugly, we might be rid of it like Ireland was of its tattooed snakes.

Perhaps part of my fascination for Eakins's painting is how—perhaps unwittingly—he has laid bare the base character of a number of those men of medicine, for the most part inattentive, if not asleep, sitting slumped in the gloom above the mortal struggle being waged on the operating table. In many of their faces, I see, or think I see, brutishness—even brutality—in the slashes of paint. I've studied my own in that painting and seem to see something my shaving mirror does not give back to me—something coarse and unnerving. To read one of Poe's tales or poems is to experience a like disturbance of the mind—almost a revolt against one's own better angels. No, I dislike the products of Poe's lurid imagination even more than I do Eakins's picture. Better to spend an hour with Walt Whitman's pages: The sentiments one finds there are so very frank and wholesome. There's something almost childlike about him. Didn't you find him so?

Are you an admirer of his verses, Moran?

I thought you must be. My name's Fenzil, by the way. Edward Fenzil. I've been calling on Whitman ever since Dr. McAlister, who ordinarily attends him, came down with influenza. My office is just along Stevens Street, at Broadway. Whitman bears his infirmity bravely, as you might have expected from reading his
Leaves
. To be honest, I much prefer a poem that gallops, with a rhyme to chime the end of each stretch, like Poe's “The Raven.” But I'm keeping you, Moran. You have the ferry to catch if you're to visit the Philadelphia exposition. Unless you've time to have your curiosity satisfied . . .

You are curious, aren't you? It was curiosity made me linger outside Whitman's house when you went inside. Forgive me, but it's the habit of a medical man, although it began in me before I ever thought of medicine as a profession. It was Poe who awoke in me a morbid interest in things that lie far from my own little fulcrum of influence—at least he sharpened it. So if you care to hear me out, come along to my rooms and I'll tell you a tale, with a whiskey or two to take off its chill—the same that I told to Whitman during one of Eakins's visits.

Coming?

Good! I get desperate sometimes for company.

They're friends, you know, Whitman and Eakins. My tale made an impression on them both—especially on Eakins. Afterward, he invited me to pose as one of the medical students in Gross's clinic. He said I'd lend his picture “gravity,” although I can't see it myself.

I sometimes think he hoped to fix me in
paint
, to make me a captive of a world not my own but—well, I can't say
whose. Not his, surely, not Eakins's, except as any artist does in pigments, clay, or words. Of the three, I mistrust words most of all. Eakins is a remarkable man. He's using Muybridge's photographic motion studies to see what cannot be seen by the eye, the better to paint life, which is rarely still. The fact remains that whenever I gaze at
The Clinic of Dr. Gross
, I feel oppressed, as though I've been translated into a form of dull and inert matter. As if I'd become ossified. The only one sitting in that dirty brume whose face shows animation—whose eyes are open and aware—is Eakins. He inserted himself into his painting: He's sitting in the first row, next to the man wearing a frock coat and wing collar, with an unruly blond mustache and glazed expression. This man, the jaded one, stands in the mouth of the tunnel leading to the operating theater while Eakins leans forward, his interest piqued, his gaze intense, even cold. His hand holds a pencil, with which he's sketching the bloody scene.

Damn this wind! My pipe's gone out. Well, we're almost there.

Eakins's picture? Monstrous thing.

There's something, too, about the tunnel he painted below the gallery: It seems lit by a distant fire whose source lies elsewhere than the world of actuality that Eakins is said to have depicted with such exactitude. One would almost call the quality of that light infernal, if this weren't 1876, in an age of science and reason. See for yourself if I'm not right. You'll be sure to view the painting, won't you, Moran? It's curious and, I think, worth the time and small effort to take it in. It seems an illustration for a story Poe might've written. Perhaps he did write it, and it's been lost. There is
another. . . . He died believing I'd destroyed it. I meant to, but I couldn't bring myself to burn it on the grate.

I said that I have the sensation of being in thrall to something or someone whenever I look at myself in Eakins's painting. I think it's Poe; his influence on me has persisted all this long while since we were so often together in Philadelphia during the winter of 1844 and, once that winter, in Providence, when we visited—strange to say—another Whitman: Sarah Whitman, no relation to the Good Gray Poet. A Transcendentalist and gifted medium, Sarah was also a beauty. When Poe first saw her, she was examining an African violet for mites in her sunny front parlor. That afternoon, I attended my first séance at her house in Providence.

Here's where I have my rooms and practice. They're somewhat cramped, but adequate for a bachelor's needs. Come up. Mind your head on the gas fixture.

No, I never married. After Poe's wife died, he came near to marrying Sarah Whitman. They were engaged, and Poe—a measure of his regard—gave her his pledge of sobriety, which he couldn't keep. He was too aware of himself—of the devils that scorched him with the fire of self-knowledge and made his life a misery. He was like a cat beset by vicious boys—like the boy on Gross's table, being flayed to the bone by knives. Poor Edgar found it necessary to anesthetize himself. He couldn't have lived otherwise. As it was, he died at forty. He'd suffered the torments of hell, and God was kind to take him early. If He exists. One finds no evidence of Him in Poe's stories or in Eakins's picture, for that matter. Poe wouldn't have been happy for
long, in Providence, consorting with the Transcendentalists. Their spiritualism was too refined, too precious, for his nepenthean dreams. A delicate woman, Sarah took ether for her heart. He would have destroyed her—they would have destroyed each other. Virginia, his waif of a wife, had been tolerant of his foibles. She, too, died young.

Make yourself at home, Moran, while I pour us each a rye whiskey to be going on with—unless you'd prefer wine. I have an excellent Madeira. . . .

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