Left Hand Left Behind

This Week’s Prompt: 124. Hideous secret assemblage at night in antique alley—disperse furtively one by one—one seen to drop something—a human hand—

The Resulting Story: FORTHCOMING

This story has a number of potential prompts. First, of course, there is the secret assemblage gathering in an ancient alleyway–each member leaving, and one leaving with a human hand they drop. The first thing that comes to mind here is we have borne witness to the careful dismemberment and scattering of a body by a group of strangers. We will go into what purpose this might serve in a  moment. The second thing to note is that it is a hand that is left behind. Something we can examine in detail as well, as there are one or two uses for a hand that come to attention.

In general, it appears that these strangers have murdered someone and departed with various pieces of him for their own purposes. It hardly takes a leap in imagination to suggest that they have done so for occult purposes, whether magical or scientific. We have discussed various uses for the dead before–relics here, the hand of glory here for instance–but there are many more that remain. 

In the more disgusting is the Bezoar, a concentration of human hair that forms within the body. Bezoar’s were collected as a cure for any poison, instead of an ailment or tool of murder. The strange, almost rocky things, were believed to somehow filter out the toxin as it passed. Alchemists further described various rituals as the bezoars of celestial bodies, and in Goa there was a business of manufacturing such objects. Using hair, fossils, teeth, and gems, they were used for much the same purposes.

We did discuss, in our work on cannibalism, the idea of monstrous bandits eating hearts of children for occult powers. They are not the only ones who sought power through cannibalizing human beings. The idea of criminal organizations harvesting organs can be found throughout the world–particularly the organs and eyes of children in the 1980s to 90s in Latin America. And we have talked about cannibals here as well. 

On a mythic level, eating the body of the holy monk Xuanzang during the journey to the west supposedly granted numberless boons–including immortality for the one to do so. Of course, the result of a demon devouring a divine personage was never seen in the story–the monk made his way across in safety. The threat remains, however, and reminds me of a Japanese story about eating Ningyo–by eating one, a given person might live forever. The most famous example of this is a buddhist priestess who lived to be 800 years old before taking her own life. Perhaps this congregation in an alley was dividing up leftovers?

One of the more esoteric and surprising suggestions of uses comes from the Magus, Book 1. This book of magic instructs that, by using a Grimoire called the Book of Pluto, one might generate animals from the bodies of animals. While it does not specify generating something from the body of a man–although it does generate a man from a hen’s egg–it is not beyond the realm of possibility to do such things. These creations have unique and potent powers–said man is a mandrake, a creature with an infamous song. The virtues a full grown mandrake might have were sadly not listed in the Grimoire in question. Still, we might imagine that the parts of a man might create something particularly potent and ghastly. The body parts of gods, in the Classic of Seas and Mountains bring forth their own divinities. 

The hand in particular is interesting, going back to an iteration of the Bluebeard narrative. In a version recorded by the Grimm Brothers, The Robber’s Bridgegroom, a woman marries a man only to see him and his comrades beat and dismember another woman at night. They leave behind a finger with a wedding ring still attached–and this becomes the incriminating evidence against the robber. This of course gets the robber slain by her brothers. A number of Bluebeard myths feature the grizzly dismemberment of the body.

There are also cases of the Hand of Glory. We touched on this here, but I’d like to expand somewhat from that. For those unfamiliar, the hand of glory is the hand of a thief, where one finger has been replaced with a candle made from the fat of a hung man. Its powers are many–it opens locks, it opens heavy doors with ease, it cannot be extinguished except by milk, and it can put to sleep entire households. In more than one case, it is lit by the fire place of the house the thief intends to rob–perhaps subverting the traditional power of the hearth.

Each light represents a sleeping member of the family.

In Germany, there are stories of thieves lights–similar criminal tokens but made from the fingers of unbaptized children. These light at the thief’s thought, and are visible to him only–everyone else sees only darkness. Further, anyone sleeping in the same room as a thieves light will not be woken, even by heavy storms.

In Poland, the finger of a hanged criminal preserved in a jar will bring about successful businesses. Sadly, he was caught by his own servants and arrested for possession of such a grisly device. His business did not survive him afterwards. Perhaps it was the lack of magical prowess…perhaps instead it was the rumors that a finger was preserved in his basement and the very public arrest. Who can say, precisely?

Another grizzly example of dismemberment comes from a Pope. Pope Sylvester II supposedly, as discussed here, made a deal with demons for his position or for his knowledge. The condition of a long life and knowledge was he not set foot in Jerusalem. When he fell ill after giving Mass at the Church of Jerusalem in Rome, he asked that after death his body be cut to pieces and scattered throughout the city. Why is unclear–I briefly wonder if something about an intact body of a pope that made a compact with the devil would have left it open to possession. Another version leaves out the dismemberment–instead Pope Sylvester simply had his body taken out of the city by a cart, and buried where the horses stopped.

I would love dearly to now pivot to a story by Lovecraft that features this strange and ghoulish gathering–but sadly I cannot trace this story to its fruit. The closest I can find is a story about an alleyway where, eventually, a group of Russian communists plan a coup on Independence Day. That story…is so terrible, that I don’t think it makes for particularly compelling material.

So instead, I shall point to a better writer. Tanith Lee’s ghouls meet underneath the ground, every now and then, and feed on the bodies of men like ours do here. They also scheme and plan, and hold something comparable to a witches sabbath. Those too were marked by murder and canniblaism in stories past, which could leave behind a hand or eye for someone to find. 

The meeting here then has a number of gruesome implications. There are notions of ghoulish cannibalism, perhaps, but also perhaps occult attempts at preventing the living from returning from the dead. The construction of ritual objects of dark power. The prosperity of business at the expense of lives. 

Our character is no doubt an unintended observer–someone who one night stumbles upon this scene of terror. Perhaps they see it out their window, or maybe they see the alley when they are walking home. Given the phrasing, it is in an old part of town. I am inclined to think a mostly abandoned part of town–and given they leave one by one, and seem somewhat confident in their efforts. 

What can be done with a hand however? At best, at the very best, one might extract identity from finger prints. Maybe a ring or glove left behind, that is especially notable? But how to go about finding out who this victim was, without the authorities? And if it is with the authorities, how to involve them without them taking over the stories? Perhaps the sign isn’t entirely unknown ahead of time.  We will have to see.

Bibliography:

Burnell, F. S. “The Holy Cow.” Folklore, vol. 58, no. 4, 1947, pp. 377–381. JSTOR, http://www.jstor.org/stable/1257194. Accessed 13 Jan. 2021.

Samper, David. “Cannibalizing Kids: Rumor and Resistance in Latin America.” Journal of Folklore Research, vol. 39, no. 1, 2002, pp. 1–32. JSTOR, http://www.jstor.org/stable/3814829. Accessed 13 Jan. 2021.

“The Hand of Glory.” Hand of Glory Legends, University of Pittsburgh, 19 Jan. 2019, http://www.pitt.edu/~dash/hand.html. 

A Night At The Museum

This Weeks Prompt: 123. Dried-up man living for centuries in cataleptic state in ancient tomb.

The Prior Research:On Display

Fisk locked the museum door behind him. The curator had placed a notice outside, that do to a recent incident, the museum was closed for the day. The News reported an ongoing investigation into a robbery.  Of course, to Fisks’s chagrin, they mentioned that the exact items stolen were not disclosed—meaning speculation ran rampant.

“Last thing this place needs, a new round of theorists.” Franklin said as Fisk passed him a coffee.

“To be fair, Frank, this is a new kind of problem.” Fisk said, as they walked back to the Lost Treasures exhibit. The two of them looked over the crime scene, such as it was. The case for the new exhibit was open, sarcophagus closed. There was another body, the mystery mummy, fallen on its back near the door.

Well, mummy was a bit much.

“Look, I hear cocaine rots you inside out. Maybe he’s on some new shit?” Fisk said, scratching his head as he walked around the body. The body was wearing a black t-shirt, a light jacket, some gloves to stay warm and a hankerchief. The baseball cap that was a foot away—knocked over when the body fell over—was probably his too. The problem was  the body itself looked like someone freeze dried an entire person. The skin was stretched tight over bones and muscles were atrophied, eyes shut against the floor, hands crumpled where they’d hit the ground.

“Right okay.” Franklin said, walkinga round the body and up to the open exhibit case. He pointed at the carefully opened plexiglass latch. “So, this—this seems like someone tried to lift the thing out of here. Right? Opening the case at night, and cameras all bugged out.”

Fisk walked over to the rotating security cam. It was a cheap thing.  Probably didn’t actually get good image anyway.

“That adds up.” Fisk said, waving at the security guard.

“So he breaks into the museum, comes in to lift some stuff and then…what? Suddenly paralysis?”

“Heart attack?” Fisk said, walking back to the body. “I mean he can’t have been in good health, looking like that.  Here’s a cat or something, and bam!” Fisk clapped his hands together. “Drops dead. No exit wound, nothing.”

“…seems strange, just dropping dead like that.”

Not that there was much such gentlemen of the law could say. They took their notes, and had the body sent away to men who’s work was dealing with the dead instead of creting them. Morticians are well versed in the art of preservation and decay, to determine and ascertain the most probable cause of the end of their fellow man. And Douglas considered himself one of the finest in such a regard.

Which made the mystery of the exterior exceptionally frustrating. As the police had suspected, not a singular exit wound was left in place. Nor entrance wound. There were some scratches made by nails, but they seemed like the itches made by fidgeting not struggling. The fingers were brusied, and their tips were even smashed—but that was due to the other, frustrating fact that Douglas struggled to explain.

Douglas, before working as a coroner, had spent some time as a mortician. And he would never imagine such a well preserved body would exist outside such professional circumstances. The skin was dried, the insides had long lost their moisture as well. Which was unusual during a cold, wet winter season.  Perhaps, Douglas considered, the man had taken some preparations for his demise. Or maybe it was the result of a freak diet.

It made the incision somewhat more difficult process—the skin being tough and leathery, instead of smooth and easy to cut. The mysteries of the surface could be solved by going underneath…he thought. Until he found the organs.

He almost admired the handy work. It took skill to preserve them this way. Perfectly still, resembling dried fruits stuffed into a leather bag. Even their flaws were there—the mar of regular smoking on the flattened lungs, the build up around the heart valves. It was like the entire body was filled with fermaldhyde.

That was one thing, however, that felt even more out of place. The smell. There was a certain smell corpses have. Rot, decay, even preservered they smelled disquieting. This one, this one smelled sweet. Almost like lavender or honey.  Douglas did take a sample of a strange, light golden substance forming around the throat—perhaps a toxin—and wrote off the strange smell to that.

As he scraped the maerial into a vial, he felt the first twitch. The spiderweb of nervs around the neck twitched back—muscle long too stiff to respond to the pulsing attempt at movement. As Douglas sat upright, he saw it again. Another twitch, a flicker of light down into the arm. It wouldn’t be until the afternoon that he confirmed it—despite all odds and sense, there was something alive on his desk.

A museum at night is a particularly eerie place. A home has familiar shapes in the darkness—chairs, couches, moonlit windows. But a museum lives on the unusual silleuhette. On the strange shape that even a child can tell is not of this time. In a normal home. Finding such a compression of history would be alarming. In the halls of the Geogrestown museum, stepping through a doorway and finding yourself back a century is part of the appeal.

It isn’t exactly a hard to place to get into. You’ll see movies, with laser tripwires and pressure sensors and people rappelling down from the ceiling. Its all very fancy, very expensive to film, has room for tension and comedy all of that. And there’s some museums that can drop enough cash to actually install those things. Really, it’s a locked door—which exists to make things a modicum more difficult—a security guard—granted, they don’t let folks who signed up day of cover night shift—and a trip alarm. Maybe a motion sensor near the big exhibit. Some cameras for the guard at the control desk.

No, what stops most robberies at museums is probably the logistics. Its pretty hard to get an ancient bronze shield out of a building without anyone noticing—not because there’s tons of eyes on it, but because we sadly don’t live in an age where you can walk around with a giant bronze disk and not get asked strange questions.

The other added layer is what is actually on display. A lot of what you see these days are replicas—specifically to prevent people like me from reaching in, grabbing something, and ducking out.  Which, well, sucks because your stuck with a cheap copy of something you can’t even really sell unless you find a dumb as hell pawn shop owner. Not that those are exactly in short supply but…

Luckily, the odds of the Georgestown Museum faking an entire mummy are rather low. I mean they could, but I’m pretty sure no part of town has enough money for that on a dime. I put my duffle bag on the floor and looked over the body. The security had, I admit, been a bit of a hassle to work around.  A cruder sort would’ve just conked him hard on the head. A smarter sort might have hacked the cameras or something.

Me? I just dropped something in his drink, let it run its course. Walked in, turned off the cameras, walked out. Kept my mask on just in case I show up on the news.

It was cold, probably an extra layer of preservative or something. The sarcophagus looked small on the news—it wasn’t like any that I’d seen before. It was only about four feet long, two feet wide, looked like some sort of big egg. Unscrewing the top of the glass took some special tools—and that wasn’t accounting for clicking the motion alarm underneath.

I figured the thing was pretty solid, pretty heavy. I’d considered trying to pop it open and moving just the mummy—but probably that’d break in the bag. Still. I had to check, before I made off with it—if the sarcophagus was just an empty box, well. That would be bad for any follow up work or pay.

The lid was a thinner than I expected—but I got a good grip on the cold stone, and with some scratching managed to lift it up. And there he was—curled up like a babe, thin as a chicken. His hands were clasping…something close to his chest.

It was shiny, whatever it was. Looked like some sort of…emerald maybe. I leaned down to get a better look at it. That’s when I realized it was looking at me.  Empty eyes, staring at me.

***

This story hit the actual drama towards the end. I realized too late that something like the Autopsy of Jane Doe—a film I forgot until writing this—would actual serve much better than a crime procedural.  If or when I rewrite this, that’s probably the direction I’ll lean into more. Next time, we delve into secret gatherings seen at night—and what they might leave behind!