Days passed, and I began to think that Malthusian might have died. Then, a week to the day after the ambulance had come for him, I found a note in my mailbox. All it said was Chess Tonight.
I waited for the appointed hour, and after Susan had given me a list of things to ask about the old man's condition and Lyda a get-well drawing of a dancing zombie, I set out for the house on the corner.
He did not answer the door, so I opened it and called inside, «Hello?»
«Come,» he called from back in the kitchen.
I took the hallway and found him sitting at the chess table. The wine was there, and the cigarette case, but there was no board.
«What happened?» I said when I saw him.
Malthusian looked yet more wrinkled and stooped, sitting in his chair like a sack of old clothes. His white hair had thinned considerably and turned a pale shade of yellow. In his hands he clutched his cane, which I had never seen him use before while in his house, and that childish grin, between malevolence and innocence, had been replaced by the ill, forced smile of Rat Fink.
«No chess?» I asked as a way of masking my concern.
«A game of a different order tonight,» he said and sighed.
I was about to ask again what had happened, but he said, «Drink a glass of wine and then you will listen.»
We sat in silence as I poured and drank. I had never noticed before but the blindfold on the ivory woman's head did not completely cover her left eye. She half stared at me as I did what I was told. When the glass was empty and I had poured another, he looked up and said, «Now, you must listen carefully. I give you my confession and the last wish of a dying man.»
I wanted to object but he brought the cane to his lips in order to silence me.
«In 1969, September, I was attending a conference of the American Psychological Association in Washington, D.C. A professor from Princeton, one Julian Jaynes, gave a lecture there. Have you heard of him?» he asked.
I shook my head.
«Now you will,» he said. «The outrageous title of his address was 'The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind.' Just the name of it led many to think it was pure snake oil. When Mr. Jaynes began to explain his theory, they were sure of it. Individual consciousness as we know it today, he said, is a very recent development in the history of mankind. Before that, like schizophrenics, human beings listened to a voice that came from within their own heads and from this took their cues. These were post-ice age hunter-gatherers for whom it was important to think with a single mind. They heard the voice of some venerable elder of their tribe who had since, perhaps, passed on. This was the much-touted 'voice of God.' Individual ego was virtually nonexistent.»
«You mean,» I said, «when the ancients refer to the word of the Lord, they were not speaking figuratively?»
«Yes, you follow,» he said and smiled, lifting the wine glass to his lips with a trembling hand. «I could tell you that this phenomenon had to do with the right hemispherical language center of the brain and a particular zone called Wernicke's area. When this area was stimulated in modern laboratory experiments, the subjects very often heard authoritarian voices that either admonished or commanded. But they were very distant voices. The reason, Jaynes believed, was that these auditory hallucinations were travelling from the right hemisphere to the left, not through the corpus callosum—the, shall we call it, bridge that joins the hemispheres—but rather through another passageway, the anterior commissure.»
«I'm hanging on by a thread, now,» I said.
Malthusian did not acknowledge my joke, but closed his eyes momentarily and pressed on as if it would all soon become clear.
«Whereas Jaynes gives many explanations for the growing faintness of the voice of God—genocide, natural upheavals, parental selection, environmental demands requiring the wonderful plasticity of the human brain to enact these changes—my fellow researchers and I believed that the muting of the voice was a result of the rapid shrinking of the anterior commissure to its present state of no more than one-eighth of an inch across. This, we believed, was the physiological change that fractured the group mind into individual consciousness. 'Father, why have you forsaken me?' You see? There is much more, but that is the crux.»
«The survival of human beings depended upon this change?» I asked.
«The complexity of civilization required diversification.»
«Interesting,» was all I could manage.
«As I said,» Malthusian went on, «very few took Jaynes seriously, but I did. His ideas were revolutionary, but they were not unfounded.» Here, he took a cigarette from the silver case and lit it.
«Is that smart,» I asked, nodding at the cigarette, «considering your health?»
«I have been conditioned by Philip Morris,» he said with a smile.
«This theory is only the beginning, I can tell,» I said.
«Very good, professor,» he whispered. «As Farid ud-Din Attar might have written—if this tale I am about to tell you were inscribed with needles upon the corner of the eye, it would still serve as a lesson to the circumspect.»
He lifted the bottle of wine and poured me another glass. «To begin with, if you tell anyone what I am about to tell you, you will be putting your family and yourself in great jeopardy. Understood?»
I thought momentarily of Malthusian's photos with all those military personnel and his telling me that he had been employed by one of the more shadowed entities of the government. A grim silence filled the room as those huge eyes of his focused on mine. I thought of leaving, but instead I slowly nodded.
«I was part of a secret government project called Dumbwaiter. The title might have been humorous if not for the heinous nature of the work we were doing. As psychologists, we were assigned the task of creating dedicated assassins, men devoid of personal volition, who would do anything—anything —that they were ordered to do. Mind control, it is sometimes called. The CIA had, for a short period, thought that the drug LSD might be useful in this pursuit, but instead of creating drones they spread cosmic consciousness. Once this failed, the Behaviorists were called in.
«My lab was situated in a large, old Victorian house out in the woods. No one would have suspected that some bizarre Cold War experiment was taking place in its basement. I had two partners and, working off Jaynes's theory, through surgery and the implanting of pig arteries and chimpanzee neurons, we widened and filled the anterior commissure in a test subject's brain in order to increase the volume of the auditory hallucination. Through conditioning, my voice became the voice of God for our subject. I was always in his head. One verbal command from me and my order would remain with him, inside his mind, until the task was completed.»
What else was I to think but that Malthusian was pulling my leg. «Do I look that gullible?» I said and laughed so hard I spilled a drop of my wine on the table.
The old man did not so much as smile. «We had created a zombie,» he said. «You laugh, but you should be laughing at yourself. You do not realize how, without any of our work, the human mind is so perfectly suggestible. The words 'obedience' and 'to listen' share the same root in more than half a dozen languages. With our experiment, this man would do whatever he was told. The results even surprised us. I instructed him to learn fluent French in a week. He did. I instructed him to play a Chopin nocturne on the piano after only hearing it once. He did. I instructed him to develop a photographic memory. I commanded him to stop aging. At times, for the purpose of a particular assignment, I might instruct him to become fatter, thinner, even shorter.»
«Impossible,» I said.
«Nonsense,» said Malthusian. «It has been known for some time now that the mere act of deep thought can change the physiological structure of the brain. If only my colleagues and I could publish our findings, others would also know that prolonged, highly focused thought is capable of transforming the physiological structure of more than just the brain.»
It was obvious to me at this time that Malthusian's illness had affected his mind. I put on a serious face and pretended to follow along, exhibiting a mixed sense of wonder and gravity.
«Why are you telling me all of this?» I asked.
«Why, yes, why,» he said, and, more astonishing than his tale, tears began to form at the corners of his eyes. «The zombie had been useful. Please don't ask me specifically how, but let us just say that his work resulted in the diminution of agitators against democracy. But then, with the end of the Cold War, our project was disbanded. We were ordered to eliminate the zombie and set fire to the facility, and were given large sums of cash to resume normal life—with the threat that if we were to breathe a word about Dumbwaiter to anyone, we would be killed.»
«Eliminate the zombie?» I said.
He nodded. «But I had pangs of conscience. My own God was talking to me. This man, whom we had hollowed out and filled with my commands, had been kidnapped. Just an average healthy citizen with a wife and a small child had been taken off the street one day by men in a long dark car. His loved ones never knew what had become of him. Likewise, I had made a deal to never see my own family again when I promised to work on Dumbwaiter. I disappeared after my parents and sister were brought to this country. For me to contact them in any way would mean their demise. I have missed them terribly through the years, especially my sister, with whom I had a strong bond after surviving the horrors of the old country. For this reason, I could not dispose of the zombie.»
«That would be murder,» I said, and instantly regretted it.
«It would have been murder either way,» said Malthusian. «Either I killed the subject or they killed us and our subject. Instead, I took a chance and left to the ravages of the fire a cadaver we had on ice there for many years. We hoped that no one was aware of it, that if a body was found in the ashes that would be enough to suffice. Remember, this is the government we are talking about. We had worked for them long enough to know that their main priority was silence.» Malthusian went silent himself, nodding his head upon his chest. I thought for a second that he had fallen asleep. When I cleared my throat, he reached for the wine but stopped. He did the same with the cigarette case. Then he looked up at me.
«I'm dying,» he said.
«This very moment?» I asked.
«Soon, very soon.»
«Did they tell you that at the hospital?»
«I'm a doctor. I know.»
«Is there something you need me to do? Do you want me to contact your sister?» I asked.
«No, you must not mention any of this. But there is something I want you to do,» he said.
«Call the ambulance?»
«I want you to take care of the zombie until the transformation is complete.»
«What are you talking about?» I said, and smiled.
«He's here with me, in the house. He has been with me all along since we burned the lab.» Malthusian dropped the cane on the floor, leaned forward on the table and reached for me with his left hand. I pushed the chair back and stood away from the table to avoid his grasp.
«I've been working with him, trying to reverse the effects of the experiment. The change has begun, but it will take a little longer than I have left to complete it. You must help me to return this poor man to his family so that he can enjoy what is left of his life. He is beginning to remember a thing or two and the aging process is slowly starting to return him to his rightful maturity. If I should die, I require you to merely house him until he remembers where he is from. It won't take very long now.»
«Dr. Malthusian,» I said. «I think you need to rest. You are not making any sense.»
The old man slowly stood up. «You will wait!» he yelled at me, holding his arm up and pointing with one finger. «I will get him.»
I said nothing more, but watched as Malthusian precariously leaned over to retrieve his cane. Then he hobbled out of the room, mumbling something to himself. When I heard him mounting the stairs to the second floor, I tiptoed out of the kitchen, down the hall, and out the front door. I reached the street and started running like I was ten years old.
Later, in bed, after locking all the doors and windows, I woke Susan up and told her everything that Malthusian had said. When I got to the part about the zombie, she started laughing.
«He wants you to baby-sit his zombie?» she asked.
«It's not funny,» I said. «He worked for some secret branch of the government.»
«That's the one all the kooks work for,» she said. «You're a man with way too much time on his hands.»
«He was pretty convincing,» I said, now grinning myself.
«What if I told you they were putting Frankenstein together in the basement of the hospital? If he's not crazy, he's probably playing with your mind. He seems to have a healthy measure of mischief about him. That string tie is a good indicator.»
I wasn't completely convinced, but Susan allayed my fears enough to allow me to get to sleep. My dreams were punctuated by wide-eyed stares and piano music.
I forced myself to believe that Susan was right, and that I had better ignore Malthusian and get to work on my book. The summer was quickly approaching and soon the autumn would send me back to teaching. It would be a great embarrassment to return to work in September empty-handed. I picked up where I had left off months earlier on the manuscript—a chapter concerning «The Facts in the Case of M. Valdemar.» The return to work was what I needed to anchor me against the tide of Malthusian's weirdness, but that particular story by the great American hoaxer, second only to P. T. Barnum, had zombie written all over it.
One afternoon, when I was about to leave the house to go to the local bookstore, I looked out the front window and saw the old man slowly shuffling up the street. I had neither seen nor heard from Malthusian since the night I had abandoned him in his fit of madness two weeks prior. It would have been a simple thing to leave the living room and hide in the kitchen, but instead I quickly ducked down beneath the sill. As I crouched there, I wondered at the fear I had developed for my neighbor.
Five minutes went by, and when I thought he should have passed on to where the woods began at the end of the block, I raised my head above the windowsill. There he was, standing at the curb, hunched over, staring directly at me like some grim and ghastly bird of yore. I uttered a brief, startled gasp, and as if he could hear me, he brought the top of his cane up and tapped it lightly against the brim of his Tyrolean hat. Then he turned and moved off. This little scene threw me into a panic. I never went to the bookstore, and when it was time for Lyda to get out of school, I drove over and picked her up instead of letting her take the bus, which would have left her off at the corner. My panic was short-lived, for that evening, at dinner, as I was about to describe the event to Susan, we heard the ambulance.
It is sad to say, but Malthusian's death was a relief to me. Lyda and I watched from a distance as they brought him out on the wheeled stretcher. Susan, who was afraid of nothing, least of all death, went all the way to his house and spoke to the EMTs. She was not there long when we saw her begin walking back.
«Massive heart attack,» she said as she approached, shaking her head.
«That's a shame,» I said.
Lyda put her arm around my leg and hugged me.
The next morning, while I was wandering around the house looking for inspiration to begin working on Poe again, I discovered that Lyda had draped a silk purple flower, plucked from Susan's dining-room table arrangement, around the neck of Rat Fink. The sight of this made me smile, and as I reached out to touch the smooth illusion of the blossom, I was interrupted by a knocking at the door. I left my daughter's room and went downstairs. Upon opening the front door, I discovered that there was no one there. As I stood, looking out, I heard the knocking sound again. It took me a few long seconds to adjust to the fact that the sound was coming from the back of the house.
«Who knocks at the back door?» I said to myself as I made my way through the kitchen.