‘American Golgotha’, Joe Pitkin

Illustrations © 2012 Martin Hanford



 [ 273 skulls gazed at him, © 2012 Martin Hanford ] Professor Spann was already sweating freely under high starched collar and plum-colored cravat when he walked onto the university grounds via Courthouse Street. He let out a nearly silent, reflexive little thanks to God that the broad, sun-beaten oven which had made up his route for the last half-mile gave way now to the merciful shade of the horse chestnut trees that lined the quadrangle. The spring term had ended the week before and the campus had been nearly emptied of people: no one else walked the quadrangle now except for two tiny smudges in white coats at the very edge of the professor’s field of vision, probably domestic servants of one of the residence halls, freed slaves or escaped slaves or the sons of freed slaves or escaped slaves.

Professor Spann wondered as he reveled in the horse chestnut blossoms whether any of his own three graduate assistants would be awaiting him in the laboratory. It was early in the day for them, really, these earnest young men with their evening courtships and late mugs of beer. He smiled to think of them already at work in his laboratory, bleary-eyed, yet mysteriously overcome by a spasm of diligence. There he had them: what he lacked in youth, he made up for in devotion. How much more diligent was this childless old widower!

The professor mopped with his handkerchief at the high balding dome of his head as he hauled himself up the broad steps of Hawkins Hall. The muggy morning had thoroughly wilted him; he heaved at the great front door as though he were once again a little boy having to pull at the handle with all his mustered forces. Within, the heat felt all the more oppressive, mixed as it was with the sour alcoholic emanations of ten thousand specimen jars. The building, and indeed the whole city, seemed hardly to have cooled off at all overnight. He paused a moment at the foot of the inner stairwell to remove his morning coat before continuing up to his office and laboratory.

The eye sockets of 273 human skulls gazed at him from their shelves as he entered. The laboratory was empty of graduate assistants, however. The professor enjoyed this hour of solitude he usually found; in any event, his way would have been unbearably hot if he had waited another hour to come to work. He pulled up to the slate work table and regarded the single skull which sat there as though it were an orator in an amphitheater occupied by the other 272 skulls. This lone skull still rested upon the brown parcel paper in which his colleague Dr. Metzger had wrapped it; the packing crate with its straw batting lay at the professor’s feet. Dr. Metzger had sent several skulls over the last year from his archaeological dig in Peru, mostly Moche Indian specimens, though Dr. Metzger’s accompanying letter speculated that this particular cranium must have come from a Chavín woman. It was obviously small: even before measuring the cranial capacity the professor could see that this specimen would provide a buttressing datum for his theory. He hefted the skull like a dry gray gourd and sniffed at its air of stale straw.

Slowly Professor Spann rummaged about in his cabinets for his data log, his pens, his stout glass inkwell, his small sack of mustard seed, his scoop, his funnel, his graduated cylinder. His materials at length assembled, he hoisted the little skull again in his great meaty hands, flipping it over to expose the black hole of the foramen magnum at the base. He puffed a breath into it to dislodge the bits of straw that might have found their way into the braincase. And, happy to play out a joke that never ages, he blew across the foramen like a schoolboy blowing across the top of a bottle. The sound was not half so resonant, and for the benefit of no one.

With great care the professor began to scoop mustard seed into the little hole. He filled the cranium slowly, and when it seemed full he shook the skull to settle its new cargo before packing a few more grains into the loaded foramen with his thumbs. He lifted the skull once more, loaded and dense as a melon. Then he poured out into the graduated cylinder the seed that he had packed. The cylinder marked sixty-eight point eight cubic inches.

He opened his data log and wrote in the first unoccupied entry “23 June 1849” and “Peruvian Indian Woman—Tribe Unknown.” He upended the skull to regard the wear on the handful of teeth that remained attached. After some consideration he wrote “about 35 yrs.” and finally the datum of interest: “68.8 cu. in.”

“Mustard seed is an imprecise medium for conducting your measurements,” said the skull. “Have you considered how poorly the seed settles?”

With no tongue or mandible or soft palate, and for that matter without vocal cords, the voice of the skull was no more than the husk of a sound, like dry leaves being blown across a pavement. It seemed to swirl out of the gaping eye sockets like mist from a cave.

Professor Spann prided himself as one of the followers of the Apostle Thomas, who would not believe without seeing, but he had precious little talent at disbelieving what he did see and hear. Worse for him was that as a boy he had suffered no small fear of a skull in his father’s study—that of a Huron man which later became the first in the professor’s grand collection—and he had had nightmares as a youth that the skull would rise from his father’s desk and harangue him. He had not given a thought to that dream in over sixty years, but as he heard the hollow whisper before him now, the memory of the nightmare came back to him with all the force of prophecy come true. The heat or perhaps this vision had dizzied him, but as deftly as one might think possible for a man of seventy-two he rose from his chair, whisked his morning coat from its hook, and fled his laboratory and Hawkins Hall and at length the university quadrangle behind him. He passed through the oven of Courthouse Street without a pang and did not stop until he reached the door of his house.

He spent the rest of the day, and the next day as well, laid out in his room with the shades drawn and a damp rag across his forehead. No one but York, his ancient freedman butler, spoke with him, and when one of the graduate assistants came to inquire, York said only that the professor was indisposed and wished for no visitors at the moment.

The professor decided almost immediately after arriving home that he had suffered some effect of heat stroke. Yet it amazed him that, after having hit upon a rational explanation, he retained a dread of returning to his laboratory and of the skull whose voice he had hallucinated. He toyed awhile with the idea of having one of his graduate assistants remove the new skull, label it and pack it away in the storeroom. But he was being silly, he told himself: it would do him no good, and might do considerable harm, to treat his fancies as worthy of concern. He would suffer this anxiety until he faced it.

And so on the next day, when the morning air was even thicker and more oppressive than on the morning of his vision, the professor returned to his laboratory. He arrived before eight o’clock, well before even the most industrious of his graduate students would appear groggily to carry out his measurements. As he steeled his nerves to open the door to his laboratory, he silently cursed his assistants with a fervor he had never entertained since taking them on. They were like parasites, he thought, incapable of original research or of any useful trade or profession. Never had one arrived at the laboratory before nine o’clock, at least not on his own initiative. Somehow the least able had settled into his laboratory while their betters had walked years ago into the world.

At last he unlocked the door to his laboratory and strode in with all the bravado of a boxer entering the ring. The skulls looked at him from their shelves just as they had every morning. The one dreadful skull, vessel of his hallucination and humiliation, remained just where he had left it two days before on its unfolded parcel paper, beside his log book. “They could at least have removed the packing crate,” the professor mumbled sourly, though he knew well how his assistants observed the cardinal rule of all graduate work: never touch the professor’s personal research.

With a flash of purpose he took up the skull in his hands. When he felt once more its desiccated, empty lightness the spell was broken and his fear, which had mounted almost to panic in the last minute, melted off like a fog. What a silly old man he had become! He turned the skull over as though it were a ball he was preparing to throw, then set it down again next to the graduated cylinder which still contained 68.8 cubic inches of mustard seed.

There was much to be done; he had lost nearly two days at a time when he had entertained high hopes of working on his monograph on the crania of the North American Indians. His most senior assistant, Koenig, was also beginning doctoral work at Professor Joyner’s Harvard lab and would need a letter of introduction. Professor Spann’s relief at finding that the skull was once again only a skull mingled with a wave of tender feeling for his graduate students. Koenig especially was nearly a son to him: Doctor Joyner, whom the professor had always regarded as a friendly rival, would be deeply impressed by how well Koenig had been trained.

Professor Spann set about stoppering the ink well, returning his data log to its shelf, and emptying the graduated cylinder into the sack of seed. The seed let out a dull rushing sound as it poured. And then, within that dry rustle, again he heard, or thought he heard, the whisper. It took all of his marshaled composure to set down the emptied cylinder and look once again at the skull.

“Have you considered an alternative to the mustard seed?” the skull repeated.

Professor Spann emitted a little whimper, a sound unlike any he had ever made in seventy-two years of life. It felt to him as though a cloak of darkness had been draped all at once over his heart.

“It is unfortunate that your use of the seed has fouled your measurements so thoroughly,” the skull went on.

Professor Spann made once more to escape, and whirling around to face the door his arm swept the graduated cylinder to the floor, where it shattered. The crash arrested him—he heard within it the loss of his laboratory, his teaching position, his years of data—and bracing himself against another work table let out one dry, despairing sob. “Why do you torment me?” he whispered.

“I have no intention of causing you grief,” the skull replied; “I am not vengeful. I merely wanted to propose an alternative to the mustard seed.”

Besides the obvious trauma, it troubled Professor Spann deeply that the skull would bring up a methodological problem that had plagued him for months. Mustard seed did settle unevenly, and it packed with far less regularity than he had supposed it would when he had first hit upon the measurement technique. Subsequent measures of any given skull might differ by as much as 10%, though he might follow the same protocol to the letter in both measurements.

Professor Spann regained his composure, or at least the appearance of composure—within he felt like a sinking ship—and turned to face his weird benefactor. “The mustard seed has been a concern of mine as well,” he said, “but it’s the best method available. I’ve tried beans, peas, lentils, all kinds of other seed—everything is even bulkier and less uniformly shaped.”

“Lead shot—BB gauge, for instance—would pack far better,” the skull whispered.

Professor Spann had the bad habit of a natural hostility to the suggestions of others. But his psyche was so stunned now that he did not rise to attack this one. In fact, it seemed a very good idea—why had he never thought of it before? “I suppose BB shot would be less liable to deformation under the strain of packing,” he responded meekly.

“That’s precisely what I was thinking. Using BB shot would certainly resolve some of the problems in your data. Your project is conceptually flawed, I’m afraid, but the mustard seed has been no small source of error.”

Even Professor Spann’s deep psychic wounds were not enough to prevent him from taking offense at this appraisal of his project; to say it was conceptually flawed was the sharpest insult one might give a scientist. “I don’t see how it’s any of your business,” he said petulantly. “I certainly didn’t ask your opinion.”

The skull answered in its windy voice, unperturbed. “It’s certainly my business that you use a flawed measurement of my cranial capacity to buttress an a priori assumption about intellect. I’ll venture that I’m not half so inarticulate as you had supposed I would be.”

“I hadn’t supposed you to be articulate at all,” he protested. “Frankly I find the whole prospect very disquieting.” A second wave of cold dread descended over the professor as he considered the 272 already measured and labeled skulls, perched silently on his laboratory shelves, the nearly 700 more that he had packed with mustard seed, tabulated, and which sat in crates in the storeroom below.

“Perhaps I am not what you think I am,” the skull replied.

“No, I dare say you are not.” A long-ago memory rose in Professor Spann from his schoolboy Latin studies: a passage from the Vitae Patrum, the lives of the desert saints. One of the saints—he had forgotten which—had taken shelter in an ancient tomb, and the devil had tried to frighten the old monk by speaking through one of the corpses interred there. Professor Spann didn’t remember the story’s end; presumably it held some moral for the edification of medieval Christians.

“I dare say you are not the spirit of the Chavín woman,” he went on. “Your English is as good as mine, and as modern. The Chavín lived several centuries before Christ.”

“I’ve been on an American merchantman for several months,” the skull replied. “I’ve had plenty of time to learn good English.”

“Well, I’m skeptical that you should learn it so quickly.”

“We’re wasting a great deal of time with this bickering,” the skull interposed. “Your students will be arriving any minute; I believe I hear Koenig on the stairs now.”

Professor Spann too heard footsteps, and so like a schoolboy covering up a scandalous violation of house rules he busied himself once again with tidying up the work space. The footsteps did belong to Koenig, a short, prematurely bald man of perhaps 24 or 25 who brightened visibly to see that his mentor had not stayed home today. He asked whether the professor was feeling better.

“Yes, much better,” Professor Spann replied in a panic. The skull had gone mercifully silent. “Only I seem to have dropped the graduated cylinder. Perhaps I’m not quite my old self yet.”

Koenig came round the table to look at the floorboards spangled with shards. He made an impressed whistle. “I’ll go see about a broom,” he said, and he walked out into the hallway.

“I can’t keep you here,” Professor Spann said when he was once again alone with the skull. The skull did not answer. In a hurry the professor re-bundled the skull in its parcel paper and dumped it unceremoniously into the straw batting of the packing crate. He lit a candle and set it on the crate, then lugged the crate out of the laboratory and downstairs into the darkness of the basement. The storeroom had once been well-ordered, but years of inattention had left it a warren of crates and trunks and boxes. Professor Spann wound his way in as deeply as he could, and, as though hiding his shameful secret in the heart of a labyrinth, he set his cargo down in the midst of all the other crated skulls.

Professor Spann was unable to recover more than a semblance of his former confidence that day. He dithered a while in the laboratory, muttering over his papers and mishearing his assistants’ questions when he heard them at all. Sometime before noon he felt he would go mad if he did not leave at that very moment, and so he remarked to his assistants that he had left an important volume at home. Koenig immediately offered to fetch it for him, but the professor answered as breezily as he could that York would not know where the volume was, and with that Professor Spann plodded home as though in a dream.

Like a child he went to bed before the evening had fully darkened, but his sleep came in disturbed fits and fragments. Around midnight he woke in a terror and knew he would not be able to sleep again. Waves of dread buffeted him mercilessly. The skull had doubtless been right about the mustard seed, and the suggestion that he use BB gauge shot seemed a lightning-stroke of genius. Could it be, then, that the skull had also been right about his entire project being flawed? He felt as though this visitor, impudent as an old railroad tramp, had weighed all of Professor Spann’s work in the balance. It was more than his dignity could bear.

At last he could suffer the assaults of his doubt no longer. He dressed as silently as he could in the dark, and without rousing York he stole like a guilty spirit back to Hawkins Hall. He worried that a night watchman might stop him and force him to account for his strange errand. But Professor Spann saw no one but a lone drunkard asleep at the head of Courthouse Street.

One might suppose that Professor Spann’s heart would quail at the prospect of stumbling about a gallery of skulls in the dead of night, but the professor still thought of himself, even after all evidence to the contrary that he had gathered in recent days, as one who is not so easily troubled. Nearly sixty years as a scientist had bleached all hysteria right out of him, or so he flattered himself. He was surprised how difficult it was to find the crate he had left in the basement only a few hours before, but at length he felt the presence of the skull before him. He prized open the crate easily, for he had banged it shut in a hurry without a hammer. The skull lay on its straw batting, imperturbable.

“I wondered whether you had suffered an attack of piety and buried me again,” the skull whispered. Professor Spann found the skull’s motives, if there were any, impossible to divine from its expressionless face and its hollow voice. He had no idea whether the skull had just cracked a joke or made a biting rebuke.

“You spoke of flaws in my work,” Professor Spann responded haughtily, as though he had summoned a student to his office. “I’d be obliged if you would elaborate.”

“Your work is a museum of error,” the skull replied. Professor Spann’s heart fell to hear so final a judgment, but why else had he left his bed in the middle of the night, except that the skull’s opinion held some strange power over him?

The skull went on, “Have you considered, for example, the relation of cranial capacity to body size? If gross cranial capacity were a true proxy for intelligence, the whale and the elephant would both be more intelligent than Homo sapiens. A far better proxy—though by no means a perfect one—would be the ratio of cranial capacity to total body mass.”

Professor Spann leaned against a stack of crates as though he had been chastened beyond his ability to stand up straight. Within each crate sat a half-dozen or more packed skulls. Never in all his research had it occurred to him, nor would he have been able, to compare the volumes he had so assiduously measured with the weight of the men in life.

Yet the professor had little opportunity to contemplate this particular source of error, profound as it was, for the skull had continued cataloguing the methodological and conceptual blunders plaguing his life’s work. “. . . analysis also rests on fundamental sampling errors. In your measurement of the cranial capacity of American tribes, for instance, you have excluded the samples of Eskimo—quite a large-headed group—presumably because including their measurements would increase the average for aboriginal Americans as a whole. My people, by contrast, are small-headed, and you have oversampled from these Andean tribes. I’ll leave aside for the moment the question of whether any human population can be so neatly generalized; you have little idea how much intermingling has occurred between the groups you call races.” Yet, far from leaving aside the question, the skull immediately launched into a breathless critique of the very concept of race as a biological construct, contending that much of what Spann believed about racial biology was impossible to disentangle from the cultural construct of ethnicity. And, before Spann could interrupt this Niagara of commentary, the skull began an entirely separate line of attack on what it called the professor’s rather naïve assumptions—again culturally conditioned, according to the skull—about the nature of intelligence, which the skull maintained was a far more multifarious concept than a single trait distributed in a bell curve for each race or indeed for the human family in toto.

In short, the skull had in eight minutes utterly exploded the entire scientific edifice upon which the career of Professor Spann had rested. The old man, who was a famously pugnacious debater throughout his tenure in the American Philosophical Society, found himself unable to answer, his tongue strangely paralyzed, as though the skull were speaking to him out of a dream. The skull ceased its sermonizing only when the old man began visibly to fight back tears, though it remains unclear how this interior struggle was visible to an eyeless skull.

And here the story would end, were it merely a tale of an old man facing the bankruptcy of his racialist, long-since discredited worldview. Indeed, there is no shortage of such tales nowadays, of the wrongheaded Caucasian explorer, or scientist, or industrialist, or military planner, etc. learning almost too late the true values of life from a wise old native woman, or in this case, her skull. The gentle reader might object that there is insufficient evidence to prove that the skull did in fact belong to a wise old native woman, that a thirty-five year old woman is hardly old even by the standards of the ancient Chavín, and that in any event the skull has said nothing about the true values of life. All fair objections, it may be warranted, but the reader is invited to contemplate whether it is reasonable to expect a talking skull to impart to us the true values of life.

Professor Spann felt so crushed he sat down on a box facing the crate from which the skull had spoken. The skull had paused midsentence as the professor’s eyes had begun to well up, and into this silence he was able at last to spit a question: “Who are you?”

The skull adopted a softer tone: “I will answer you with a question: why do you doubt that I am the skull of a Chavín woman of about 35 years of age?”

The skull’s new tone of voice calmed him a bit, enough that he felt able to deal rationally with his questioner. Among his other reasons for doubting, the answer that first came to Professor Spann’s mind was that the skull seemed to have an impressive understanding of biology, anthropology, inferential statistics, and, as he had remarked before, the English language. A more obvious reason to have doubted would be that the skull was speaking to him at all, but this did not occur to him at the moment.

“You are a skull; I don’t doubt that. My colleague Metzger sent you to me from Peru. The rest I surmised from the evidence available to me at the time. By Metzger’s account your tomb was likely a Chavín site, and the size of your skull and the wear on your teeth suggested to me your sex and age.”

“Actually I am not so different from that,” the skull replied brightly, as though to encourage him. “In life I was part of a woman from the tribe you call Chavín. How you arrived at the age of 35 by looking at my teeth is beyond me, though: I was nearly 70 when I died.”

“Your teeth are not half as worn down as one would expect for a 70 year-old Indian.”

“Our dental care was very good, especially for the rich, and I was once quite rich. Our descendants today do not receive the care that I once did. For that matter, our dental care may have been better than what is offered in your society, to judge by your teeth and those of your students.”

For the first time in days, Professor Spann chuckled with genuine warmth. One might imagine that he laughed to contemplate the possibility of any American tribe—even the great civilizations of Peru and Mexico—outstripping the European peoples in any cultural attainment. Certainly he would have considered the possibility absurd, and a moment ago he had been affronted enough that such a thought would have come to him unbidden, but now his mind was elsewhere. Rather, he chuckled because of some hidden tone he thought he heard in the husk of that voice, a kind of flippant tang, as though the skull had tossed off her observation with great wit. Was she flirting with him?

“Your doctors must have been very skilled, then,” he ventured. “You have the teeth of a woman in her thirties.”

“My doctors were skilled enough,” she replied, “to have left me a skull in excellent condition. Indeed, all my bones were regarded as very fit and shapely, though I am afraid your Dr. Metzger thoroughly mangled them while removing the skull.”

“I am sorry for that,” Professor Spann lamented. “I will write and urge him to exercise greater care in future. But tell me: perhaps we could talk in greater comfort at my house? It’s hardly a fit hour for me to be out, and I worry that some night watchman will stumble upon us here and take me for a housebreaker.”

The skull assented. The professor went up to his laboratory to leave a note for Koenig, sending him to procure various supplies from the university facilities manager. It would be too much for the professor to bear the whole crate back to his house nearly a mile away; luckily he carried a handkerchief in the coat he had hastily donned. He spread the kerchief out on the crate where he had been sitting, then set the skull upon it with all the care of a priest setting the chalice on the altar. He wrapped up his companion and carried her home in the crook of his arm.

Walking home he felt strangely, dreamily, at ease; it surprised him how the skull’s judgment of his life’s work had not in fact crushed him the way he had first felt. She was, after all, far brighter than he had supposed, even brilliant. How his research would flourish, he realized, if he could make himself a student again, accept her instruction! How it would advance his work far beyond the efforts of his colleagues, to be able to speak with one of the subjects he had measured!

It was nearly three in the morning when he arrived home and climbed the stairs to his study. Luckily York had grown quite hard of hearing in recent years and was not roused. Professor Spann unwrapped the skull on his desk and took his leave of her. He returned to his room, undressed in the dark, and fell into a sleep more restful than many his age would have enjoyed.

He slept until well past ten o’clock, then dressed and breakfasted hastily so as to return more quickly to his study. He shut himself up there and sat down in his deep leather armchair opposite the skull on the desk. “If you don’t mind,” he said, “I would hear more about the errors I’ve made. I believe your advice will be of great value in my research.”

“Redeeming your research will not be as easy as you think. Your primary assumptions are faulty.”

“Certainly there must be some value to man in measuring what no one before has measured,” Professor Spann protested, “and I hope to improve my methods. How would you improve my work?”

“You measure everything that you encounter, certainly,” the skull replied. “What a man sees will soon be measured, if it has not been measured many times already. I could call you Homo metiens, the measuring man. But Homo sapiens is more, or should have been more, than Homo metiens. You’ve spent nearly your whole life asking the wrong questions, or scarcely asking any questions at all. What do you hope to gain by measuring the volume of so many crania?”

Professor Spann saw at once that it would not be so easy to make himself into a student again. How he had forgotten the thousand little humiliations a student must suffer, how one must humble himself in order to learn! It was no wonder that so few become students in adulthood.

“I wish to add to the edifice of human knowledge,” Professor Spann answered with the tone of someone professing a spiritual vocation.

“A worthy belief,” she replied, “but only half true: The skulls you have piled up are indeed a monument, and perhaps you have even believed that they are a monument to human knowledge. But in truth they are a monument first to yourself.”

She was right, of course: like any scientist, he imagined in spare moments the glory of having his name appear in textbooks of future generations, alongside the titans, alongside Newton and Harvey and Linnaeus. “There is nothing disreputable in seeking glory,” he objected. “Indeed, how else might we expect science or any other human endeavor to progress, if not because men of noble instincts seek recognition for their accomplishments?”

“How, indeed—” the skull began, but there was a knock at the door.

York poked his ancient broad head in. “I’m sorry to interrupt, sir, but young mister Koenig is at the door.”

“Send him away, York. Tell him I’ll be along at the laboratory this afternoon.”

The servant retreated, and when the door shut the skull whispered, as though in lament, “Alas, poor York! I knew him, Horatio!”

“What’s that? Horatio? How do you know York?”

“Forgive me,” the skull replied, “I was being irreverent with the literary treasures of your people. But tell me: will you measure York’s skull when he has died?”

The thought repulsed him; he had known York his whole life. Yet a great deal of the study of biology depends upon learning to look in spite of one’s repulsions. It seemed doubtful at times that Professor Spann would outlive York, who despite being several years older seemed as hale as a knotted pine. But if York did die first, and if he could be enticed beforehand to donate his remains to science, then yes, the professor would likely measure his skull.

The skull laughed to hear him say this, or at least to hear him think this (he wasn’t entirely sure he had spoken); her laughter was a charming feminine giggle that might have been directed at him but which the professor found nevertheless seductive. The sound of her voice was only apparently hollow; as he listened more carefully, it was so liquid and warm within, especially considering that she had no flesh, that it immediately dissolved his sense of humiliation. She giggled as though she had merely been teasing him all along; perhaps even her dismissal of his work the night before was not so final.

As he reflected on that dismissal, it occurred to the professor that he would benefit from being able to consult his data log. How she had come by such deep familiarity with his measurements he did not know, but her knowledge seemed intimate to the point that by turns he doubted his own memory, and then he doubted that she could possibly know as much as she claimed to. So he invited her to accompany him to the laboratory, and they returned to campus in the bright noon heat. Professor Spann had found in the trunk of his dead wife’s belongings a mantilla of black Spanish lace, which he draped over the skull as she rested in his arm. He, however, could feel a sunburn cooking the dome of his poor old head. “We will need to remain quiet while my students are in the laboratory,” he whispered as they made their way up Courthouse Street, when he was at leisure to speak without being overheard. She was silent. He felt grateful to have a companion of such discretion—he suspected that he needn’t have said anything, that she understood his desire for silence without being told.

In any event, the laboratory was empty when they arrived. On one of the tables lay a note from Koenig, presumably to the other graduate assistants, that he had gone to Professor Spann’s house and then to lunch. Next to the note sat a stack of paper packets of BB gauge shot. Professor Spann’s heart leapt: he set the skull on the worktable and lifted her veil, then busied himself with gathering his materials. He was not fond of the laboratory’s second large graduated cylinder as it was marked with less precision, yet he would have to use it until he could procure a replacement.

“What are you doing?” the skull asked.

Professor Spann set the data log and the graduated cylinder next to the boxes of lead shot. “It would be nice to experiment with the new methods you had suggested.”

“You plan to measure me again?”

He had planned to, but her question made him feel at once like a cad, taking liberties with the lady under his protection. “There are a great many other skulls we could measure here.”

The skull’s whisper seemed at once insistent and tempting: “But why will you measure them, Professor Spann?”

The question had never been put to him so simply before. “Why, to gather the facts together and follow them wherever they might lead.”

“Then you have learned nothing. You speak as if you know that the scientific method demands objectivity, detachment from any hoped-for outcome. And yet perfect detachment is not possible for you, any more than perfect love is possible for you. You flatter yourself that your vision is clearer than that of your grandfathers, just as future generations of scientists will look upon your work and flatter themselves that they have learned, magically, to see what is before their eyes rather than what they expected to see. That is all your work will mean to them: that you saw what you wished to see.”

“Why do you dismiss me so quickly?” he protested. “I’m not so old that I cannot learn and improve.”

“No one knows how much time is left for improvement. Your time is shorter than you think.”

“I will use every day left to me; I will devote it to learning. But teach me, I beg you.”

“Then learn this,” the skull replied: “none of these skulls you have collected will tell you what you wish to know.”

Professor Spann stopped gathering his materials and sat down, deflated. “So you have said. But surely there is some value in taking the measurement.”

“There is no value for you. Your work will be forgotten by nearly everyone, except by those few who will pause to ridicule it.”

“How cruel you are, spirit,” he murmured at length. Despair returned to him as suddenly as it had left, rearing up before him like a thick darkness of forest growing suddenly around his house. “I think I should prefer that you stay silent.”

“My speaking and my silence are not slaves to your whim; you have deluded yourself in hoping otherwise. Your students will know you are mad when they see you speaking to me.”

Professor Spann felt again the horror of his lost work, his laboratory taken from him, a forced retirement. “No, you must not! You told me you are not vengeful!”

“That is true: I am beyond vengeance and mercy. But you will not be able to disguise for very long that you are speaking to me. Koenig will return soon, any minute in fact, and to him I will seem your very imaginary friend.”

Was she mocking him? Surely she was mocking him! A strange rush of feeling overcame the old professor: shame, and impotence, and a hot rage seemed to mix within him and feed one another. “I will silence you!” he hissed.

Frantic as a berserker he snatched at the nearest article on the table. Almost before he realized it he held above his head the thick glass inkwell, which he slammed like a stone against the skull. Her left zygomatic arch shattered at the blow. The professor struck again and again at that wasted face, cracking and then sundering the frontal bone, beneath which nothing but dust and a few stray mustard seeds emerged. He kept up his assault, sending shards of bone across the laboratory, until the inkwell struck the tabletop beneath and shattered in his hand.

Ink and bone and glass lay everywhere. His hand had been cut deeply, yet he did not feel the wound at all. Breathless and totally spent, he fell back in his chair. A great dizziness overcame him.

From the pile of fragments where the skull had been the voice emerged once more in the restored silence. “In all your measuring, you would have been wiser to measure yourself. And now it is too late.”

But Professor Spann felt nothing beyond a deep weakness spread over him. His breath came in ever shallower gasps, and he felt a constriction in his chest as though a belt around his heart was tightening. He leaned back in his chair to regard the empty, pitiless stare of the 272 skulls arrayed above him.

 [ Her left zygomatic arch shattered, © 2012 Martin Hanford ]


© 2012, Joe Pitkin

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