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The phenomenon of phantom limbs is a common occurrence for survivors of amputation, and as a physician to more than a few men who returned home from the last war less whole than when they rode off, one with which I was well acquainted. Patients would report attempting to pick up a jar of jam with a hand they’d left at Gettysburg, or describe trying to scratch a knee last seen before Chancellorsville. One old farmer, an empty shirt sleeve pinned to his shoulder, even swore he could feel the hairs on his arm whenever a breeze blew through his yard. Most of these cases tended to resolve themselves eventually, with either the sensations evaporating over time, or, as in the case of the plowman, the survivor learning to live with his invisible appendage. In the latter examples, often the patient reported no pain associated with the injury — the only burden, besides the obvious, was a continual and conscious stifling of any impulse to use the limb.
Being a country doctor who served a number of towns in the eastern part of the state, mine was a wide-ranging practice with a large clientele. Yet not all cases of phantom limbs were benign — there were some, I found, in which the patient suffered pain from it. Perceptions of heat or burning were prevalent or the feeling that the limb was twisted or bent in some awkward position. These sensations I attributed to damage to the nerves located at the site of amputation, known as the neuroma, and beyond my capabilities to remedy. Instead I referred these gentlemen to a specialist in New Haven, and in every circumstance, they returned from the visit to his office free of discomfort.
Dr. Coffman had been an instructor of mine at the medical college. Much older, he’d served as a surgeon during the war; and from the grim anecdotes shared with his protégés, we understood that he’d performed a significant amount of amputations himself, often under very poor and harrowing conditions. After my degree was conferred, we kept in touch, although less so as the years passed. Still, we remained friendly to each other and in my rare sojourns into the city, I never failed to meet him for a brandy.
It was therefore a little peculiar when yesterday evening, upon arriving at my house after completing my latest circumlocution through the countryside, I found a telegram from Coffman waiting for me. It was very brief, as telegrams usually are, hinting at some astonishing breakthrough and asking that I visit him in New Haven as soon as possible. While I’d been gladly anticipating some rest, its urgent tone made ignoring the invitation out of the question. So the following morning I pecked my wife on the cheek, told her I’d be gone for the day, and boarded the Shore Line into the city.
Having achieved emeritus status at the college, Coffman had retired into private practice, and he kept an office in a row house along Mulberry Street near the hospital. When he met me at the door I was taken aback by his appearance; he’d lost weight since our last meeting, and all color had left his hair and beard, leaving it a silvery white. I told myself these were natural signs of aging and that I hardly looked the same as when I was a student: I have become very self-aware of the gray spreading at my own temples. He invited me to lunch at a nearby café, where I observed he ate very little, and after some small gossip about the whereabouts and careers of shared acquaintances, Coffman began hinting at the source of what I could tell was barely concealed excitement.
He asked me if I knew how he relieved the suffering of those patients I sent to him. I confessed that I didn’t. The patients themselves gave few details, suggesting the technique was beyond their understanding, and I assumed it involved some relaxation, if not outright removal, of the nerves closest to the neuroma. Coffman only shook his head and leaned closer to me across the table, concerned we would be overheard.
In low tones he explained his process did not involve nerves at all. Years ago, while working with saw and tourniquet in a blood-soaked Union tent, Coffman formed a notion that amputation only removed the physical extremity. What remained, he believed, was an ethereal limb that couldn’t be sliced away with steel. As the material body was composed of cells, likewise it had an ephemeral counterpart fashioned from an unseen essence. This substance existed alongside our cells, imperceptible to our senses but detectable by certain instruments of his own invention.
In the intervening span, Coffman had enlarged his theory to the extent he could operate on this invisible aspect of the human body. His technique with my patients, he told me, had been merely to excise the ghostly remnant from the neuroma, just as the physical limb had been cut away before. The discomfort they felt was real because the ethereal limb was real, even if it couldn’t be perceived by ordinary methods. By removing the phantom limb, he removed the source of their pain.
As I sat listening to him, I was awash with embarrassment and an almost elegiac sadness. Coffman, once my instructor and even my idol, my friend, had clearly slipped into dementia. His results with my patients were undeniable, yet clearly whatever procedure he employed was now subsumed by this hogwash about wraithlike substances. I knew I could never refer another patient to him.
Absurd though his beliefs were, I still felt cordial toward him, so having paid the bill I agreed to accompany him back to his office, where he wanted to show me something. Coffman could hardly contain himself as we walked from the café. The ethereal limbs he amputated, he said, were not inert tissue; just as they weren’t composed of flesh or muscle, their quintessence eluded definitions of life or death. They were still viable. For the past several years, Coffman had been engaged in a project to salvage these loose parts, but his final objective was stymied by locating a phantom head. After all, no one can survive having his braincase amputated, he said; and such a thing as a disembodied head was therefore a rarity. As fortune would have it this difficulty had been solved nearly a week prior, when Coffman was able to secure what he needed following a gruesome construction accident. Hearing this disclosure, I resolved immediately to contact a colleague I knew at the asylum in Middletown, where my friend Coffman could live out his remaining years in comfort and safety.
Entering his office, we passed through to Coffman’s laboratory, filled with strange mechanisms and dominated in the center by a stout but bare table. A bedsheet lay on the floor beside it.
Coffman, leading the way, stopped very suddenly, and when I looked toward him to gauge the reason, I observed his stare lay exclusively upon the crumpled sheet. As I watched, an expression of panic convulsed across Coffman’s face. His features rippled in contortions so overwhelming that I found myself infected, and in surging dread I glanced around the room, terrified of some danger. But beyond the furniture and machines and that simple square of white cotton, I saw nothing.
Suddenly and inexplicably, Coffman jerked upwards onto his toes. I asked him what the matter was, but in reply he uttered only a strangled gasp. Thinking he’d been stricken by a stroke or fit, I sprang forward to aid him. Without warning I too was struck — struck by something swung heavily at my jaw. A combustion of lights exploded before me, then my vision collapsed and I remember only darkness as I sprawled to the floorboards.
When I came to, I found Coffman lying before the open doorway. On the far side of the office, the door onto the street also hung unlatched, but more than an hour passed before I realized the strangeness of that — for I distinctly recalled shutting it behind me when we entered from lunch. I crawled to Coffman to check his pulse. I found none, and my pocket mirror placed before his lips likewise failed to produce any fog on the glass. His eyes bulged in fright, his tongue curled in his mouth like a shriveled black worm. Thinking his heart had seized, my gaze fell lower along his body. It was then that I recoiled from my old friend, shuffling backwards on palms and feet to escape, halted only when I struck a heavy leg of the table behind me.
The distance wasn’t great enough to obscure the horror of what lay across Coffman’s neck. Striping both sides of his throat were two sets of purple contusions, imprinted on the skin like ink. I counted ten of them.
Interview with Jackson Kuhl, Author of “An Incident on Mulberry Street”
What inspired your story?
Poe himself! The best gothic writers often fuzz the borders between what we consider horror, fantasy, and science fiction. Take a look at Poe’s “The Man That Was Used Up,” for example. It’s disturbing, blatantly impossible, and yet an extrapolation of medicine as it existed in the 1830s, all at once.
Before I wrote “Incident,” I read a couple of Poe stories to reaffirm his language and flow in my brain. I wanted it to be a conscious homage.
Phantom limbs are taken to such an interesting extreme in your story. How did you come up with that idea?
I felt it was a fun explanation of the phenomenon of phantom limbs as seen through the lens of 19th-century spiritualism. I keep a notebook of story ideas. Some are based on dreams but most are just unplaced thoughts. When I saw the submissions call for Letters to Poe, I thought to myself, That phantom-limb idea would be perfect, and I banged out the story.
What’s your favorite gothic story or poem and why?
Robert Aickman’s “The Fetch,” which can be found in his collection The Wine-Dark Sea, gave me nightmares. Literally. It’s an absolute masterpiece of characterization and gothic claustrophobia as the protagonist, who’s a bit of a jerk, becomes trapped in an oubliette of his own manufacture. I’m a huge Aickman fan, BTW, and I can’t shut up about him.
Do you have a theme you return to time and again?
I’m obsessed with the idea of deceptive appearances and how people, settings, and even ordinary objects may not be what we initially perceive. My desk supports my laptop and a cup of coffee and yet it’s mostly composed of the empty space in and between atoms — these things are not what they seem to be. If there’s a single thread running through my work it’s that, and often unconsciously done.
What are you working on now?
A Season of Whispers, my gothic novel set in a haunted 19th-century transcendentalist commune, was published in October from Aurelia Leo and I’ve been busy promoting that. I finished another novel — a ghost story set in 1898 — back in the spring, so I’ve been shaping that up too. Currently I’m working on a third.
What else would you like people to know? Where can people find you online?