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Confined afterwards to my room in that house of light turned evil darkness, terror gripped me. Had I killed my uncle? What rage had lifted the heavy candlestick? I touched my skull beneath my curls – was there not a bump of decency there, beside the perverse bump? Was I this bone only….He’d had no right to say it.
Escape my sole hope, I set to picking the bedroom lock. I was a woman, depraved; this would prove it. The hallway shadows confounded my resolve. There were others in this moldering house and they had ears: the servant called Moth, more an elephant from his size, who had locked me in before returning to see to Uncle Henry. There was the guest newly down from the capitol, the illustrious name I recalled – Senator Nathan Beattie. With silvered hair, body sleek as a mountain lion, standing straight as if in invisible uniform as Uncle Henry presented me to him so deferentially that first evening. My niece Talitha, Sir.
The hall conjured my uncle’s image and I moaned. The blood had seeped from beneath his head like a living thing.
A door slammed in the house’s nether regions. Hide, my imperfect skull screamed.
Into the nearest room I slipped, but it was not deserted. A man I had never seen turned to stare.
From that lowly physiognomy, I knew my error.
“You’re the niece,” he growled.
“You’re the murderer.”
My uncle, renowned physician Henry Wortham, was a childhood memory become a stranger. On his doorstep that first evening, aghast at the decrepit state of the house I’d loved as a child, I thought him happy to take me in. I had nowhere, nothing. A wife fleeing fists. His guest, Senator Beattie, seemed understanding. It was over dinner that the shadow rose and grinned.
“But phrenology reveals the soul’s prima mobilia, Talitha. Every faculty, every tendency is shown in those protrusions. The skulls speak.” The fire flickered. My uncle was obsessed with this new science of skulls, the Senator more so. Some scheme to identify criminals before their crime, refashion the penal system. The wrongness of it had chilled my blood and I argued with them. A man’s head was not his soul. “Phrenology is our future, dear niece, the way to betterment.”
“You really must be measured,” Senator Beattie remarked. Uncle Henry nodded, eyes hooded.
Thus it was on that next evening that I found myself led by giant Moth to a dim laboratory where my uncle proceeded to lift my curls aside and determine by tapes and strange implements the hidden nature of my soul.
“Enlarged audacity.” Cold iron against my scalp startled me. “As I thought.”
The dinner conversation haunted me. “Surely, Uncle, you cannot charge men with crimes before the commission? That imp is in all of us. It takes the circumstance.”
More measurements. “Irascible, selfish – yes, we have before us a woman who would desert her lawful husband.” I no longer knew his voice. Was it the influence of that obsessed senator, some miasma of the house?
“Charles is a monster, Uncle.”
He appeared oblivious. “To answer your question, Dr. Gall’s researches in phrenology find a faculty of perverseness in those who have killed, which betrays itself above the os frontis. The bullety forehead. We presently harbor a murderer here in the house in fact, his skull misshapen from birth. Strangled a man in rage.”
Moth, my senses whispered. Yet the servant had no bullet forehead. At my wide – my audacious – glance, Moth tweaked his collar to hide bruises on his neck I hadn’t before noticed. Attacked by the murderer? What beast it must be that could lay hand on Moth.
I started up, determined to be rid of it all, but Moth pressed me down.
Uncle Henry spoke. “We dispose of them, you see. Remove them, for the good of society.” He could not mean what I thought. It was evil too great to bear; my mind could not birth it. “Beattie’s very keen on it. Brings me those he can commandeer. When the measurements prove out – and they do – Moth takes care of them for us.” Flee, my every nerve cried. “Just one more measurement, dear.”
Oh then his gasp confirmed my pounding fear, as iron brushed the back of my head. “Not…that bump. On you?” When he came round to confront me, his gaze was dead. The shadows of this house – of his horrid science – had his soul, for it was not there. “The bump of utter depravity…”
“First do no harm,” I pleaded, praying to wake that oath in him.
He clucked. “I’m sorry, Talitha. Society must be bettered.”
As he turned to Moth, my hands found the brass candlestick and swung.
The shock of his copious blood rendered me horrified long enough for frantic Moth to lock me away.
“Yes, I killed a man.”
And here before me now, the bullety forehead…yet I felt nothing but cool calm. Malformed of skull he was, this murderer, but the eyes bespoke kindness.
“Reuben Nye,” he introduced himself.
“I’m afraid I’m a member of your club, Mr. Nye.”
“Not a genteel club.”
“I’ve assuredly killed my uncle.”
“Good.” He smiled wryly, which did wonders for his face. “Justified, I presume. Mine was. The man I killed had mistreated a woman of the night – a good woman – and she died. My rage was justified. The jury didn’t see it that way. Beattie promised to save me from hanging if I would commit myself to his scientific endeavors.”
More shouts ascended from below, Moth or the senator. Minds obsessed.
Through the moonlit window past Nye, I glimpsed the morose hills, gray bumps of vegetation that should have been green. Some execration held this place in its maw and shook it. Upon occasion, the house would shudder; I’d noticed it several times. We stood atop a great skull, those rough bumps testament to its evil. “They plan to execute us.”
“Incomprehensible. This house was full of light once. I cannot believe what I’ve done. Did some evil move my hand?”
I’d asked the dark only, but Nye answered. “Vitativeness. Love of life. The good doctor explained it to me. Sounds immanently desirable, but it’s animalistic, causes a rage for survival.” He touched the back of his head near the neck. “Here, somewhere.”
The door flew open. Of course they’d found us.
Vitativeness was not my first thought when Moth wheeled in Uncle Henry. Henry’s bandaged head held a concave spot, still oozing red, gumming the wheelchair’s rim, his face gray as the hills.
“I’m not so easily done in, niece.” Behind him came Beattie, with a glinting staghorn knife he handed to Moth. “Ah, Senator. As you see–” Henry touched his bandage – “I’ve discovered another disposable. My niece, unfortunately. I always said my brother married a woman lacking in our faculties.”
“Your presumption of immunity amazes me, Wortham.” Beattie indicated the bandage. “Look to your own faculties.” I began to grasp the depth of the senator’s perverse convictions. “There, the faculty of ideality, wholly crushed.”
“Don’t be ridiculous. I still have the idea of myself.” Upon Henry’s uncomprehending gaze, pity gripped me in spite of myself.
Beattie shrugged. “The skull speaks. You are reduced to an animal, Wortham.” At his nonchalant gesture Moth stepped to my uncle.
The demise of hope is a terrible thing to witness. Henry’s scream just before Moth slit his neck drove me past all sense.
Beattie deigned to notice my terror. “His small science was just a start, you know. I’ve discovered one much more admirable. More…powerful. How do the two of you like my handiwork?” He indicated Moth. I recalled the marks on the servant’s neck. “He was hanged for his crime, but I brought him back.” From the dead?…. Beattie was insane, delusional. “When I’ve enough for an army, I’ll wake them.” He gestured and Moth advanced on me.
“You cannot do this,” Nye shouted.
“They can, Mr. Nye. I am nothing.” Yet he understood my glance. Rapport – it has ever been so, with my beloved Reuben, since that fateful night. Not surrender. A signal.
We attacked together, Reuben wresting the knife from Moth with alarming skill and applying it to his ribs at the same moment I hurled myself at Beattie. All Beattie’s cunning hadn’t prepared him for a woman’s vitativeness. My fingernails found his eyes, then I was fleeing, Reuben close behind.
Downward, into shadow. All outer doors locked, we ended at a root cellar, stumbling blind across rock-strewn ground until Reuben struck a match. Skeletons! – skulls, the lovely and misshapen there together – we walkedon the bones of those they’d executed! Reuben’s face mirrored abhorrence equal to mine.
The match went out.
Above, Beattie emitted a lupine howl, an incantation. I felt then in those bones that slippage that had oft caused the house to shudder.
They were waking. And they were ever so angry, but not at us.
Ahead lay light, dawn through the chinks of an outer door, escape from that hell-house, and we scrambled toward it.
Interview with Rhonda Eikamp, Author of “The Speaking Skulls”
What inspired your story?
Long-gone scientific beliefs have always fascinated me. In a way, they’re like origin stories – people have always sought stories for why things are the way they are, but in the case of phrenology the reasoning was – literally – superficial. It was an obsession of Poe’s and it maybe says something about him. It has implications even today, in how we judge people by their appearance. I wanted to incorporate that into a story about obsession.
How long have you been writing?
Feels like forever (sighs but smiles). Not to give away my age, but I had a first iteration as a writer in the early 90’s, when small press was mimeographed and saddle-stapled. I published stories in The Urbanite and Space & Time among others, then life got in the way. The second – current – iteration started around 2013.
Do you have a theme you return to time and again?
Not really. I write what strikes me. I love the weird – writers like Jeffrey Ford, Jeff VanderMeer, Brian Evenson, and would love to be able to create that sublime sense of unease, but I’m not there yet and may never be.
What are you working on now?
The end of one story is the start of the next. No large project, no novel. I’ll always be a short-story writer. My next story coming out is “The Eyedom” in C.M. Muller’s anthology Oculus Sinister, where I am thrilled to at least share pages with the likes of Brian Evenson and Steve Rasnic Tem.
What else would you like people to know? Where can people find you online?
Once long ago I started a blog that now serves only as a list of my stories available online – Writing in the Strange Loop. You can also check out my isfdb (Internet Speculative Fiction Database) listing.