The writing continues! I have nothing of note to update you on, so I will cut straight to the chase!
This prompt reminded me of the outbreak of ergot in Pont St. Esprit in August of 1951. So, with a little inspiration from the writing style of Wilkie Collins in The Woman in White and Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley in Frankenstein, I wrote this fictionalized account of those events told through an exchange between the doctor that treated the villagers during this epidemic, Dr. Bernard Gabbai, and a fictional journalist, Marcus Raineau.
“Please, take a seat Monsieur…”
“Doctor Gabbai. But please, call me Bernard.”
Bernard Gabbai, a gentleman of distinguished years with slightly disheveled, long, grey hair and thick-rimmed glasses, sat down on a creaking leather armchair that had seen better days. The man sitting across from him was a journalist, Marcus Raineau, meek in stature, dressed as a gentleman, but with a telling glint of hunger in his eye that indicated he wasn’t going to be easy to shake off.
“Of course, Bernard. Now, to begin, I would like for you to tell me what happened on the morning of August 20, 1951.”
Bernard sighed. So much for pleasantries. “It really began so much earlier than that…” he began.
…or at least that is how it felt. Had it really been just a few days? Doctor Gabbai had only just returned from vacation when the onslaught erupted. Food poisoning, clearly that was what it had to be according to all the symptoms, a whole office full of the ill. It didn’t seem unusual, outside of the sheer number of the afflicted, but nothing to indicate… well, that will come soon enough.
“I had been called into the home of Mme. Renée Carle on August 20.” Gabbai said, settling back into his chair, pressing his fingertips together in front of his chest, elbows placed on the armrests at his sides. “Her 5-year-old daughter, Marie-Joseph, was hallucinating tigers in her room and blood dripping from the ceiling, horrific images that were only driven away by periods of violent convulsions. It was the beginning of a waking nightmare. In hindsight, I should have connected the food poisoning with the poor girl’s symptoms, but at the time, I was just so overwhelmed. I drugged her, clueless as to the cause of her mysterious hallucinations, as her father raved on in the next room about beaded curtains insisting that the flies needed them, or some other such idée fixe. These ravings induced me to also sedate M. Carle. I recommended that Marie-Joseph be removed to hospital in Avignon, and I returned to my practice.”
“Was that the only instance?” Raineau asked, with a slightly inappropriate amount of excitement tinging his voice.
“No, of course not,” Bernard retorted, annoyed. “If it had been, you would not be here, no? The calls kept coming, the case kept growing. The town seemed to no longer be held in reality. I feared that they had all gone mad, or that the world had ended with the war and the town had not been informed but left to slowly disintegrate into despair and fever dream. The reports kept getting worse, the accounts more strange. Felix Mison and his family were ill, and the dog was suddenly dead after going into convulsive fits—jumping wildly around and running in circles, snarling at anyone who approached.”
“The Moulin household had all taken ill, including farm staff. Of the nine people that resided in the house, only 4 were able to move. The same pattern of illness, insomnia, convulsive fits, and hallucinations were observed in every case. The Moulin’s cat met the same fate as Felix’s dog, and the ducks were parading around the farm as though they had suddenly turned into penguins, only to collapse a short while later.”
“Is that when you began to suspect the source?” interrupted Raineau.
Bernard sighed and separated his hands, resting his palms against the tops of his knees. Leaning forward slightly, his eyes locked on something unseen in the distance.
“The hodgepodge of unlikely patients was the first clue to solving the cause of all of the trouble. What had caused both the family and the animals to get sick? What caused food poisoning with a slew of other unusual symptoms tacked on? The common denominator was in the one thing they had all shared—the bread. The bread from Roche Briand’s bakery on La Grande Rue, to be specific.”
“It wasn’t until I started looking into the bakery to see what may have caused the source of this illness that I began to notice strange things. Things that I could only assume had been occurring all along, but not until something slipped out of balance did it become apparent.”
“What sort of strange things?” Raineau whispered.
“It is difficult to say,” hesitated Gabbai. “It is difficult to suspect a member of your community. It is more difficult, still, to utter aloud something so impossible as to make you question your own sanity.”
“Isn’t that what some have done? Question your sanity, I mean.”
“Yes,” Gabbai continued, “of course, this is true. But who would not question my sanity? Not only did the whole town go mad, and from eating bread no less, which already sounds like a fairy tale, but here I am also, the Doctor that treated so many of them telling wild tales all while insisting that he was not infected as well. Who would you believe? The raving Doctor, or the fear in your heart telling you that what he is saying cannot be true? But I tell you truly, Monsieur—I did not eat the bread.”
“Indeed, so you have said. But let us get to that in a moment. Please go on, Doctor…I mean Bernard. What is it that you began to notice at the bakery?”
Doctor Gabbai glanced from Marcus’ face over to the window, then from the window to the pitcher of water on a small table to his left. His eyes could not settle on any one thing in the room, his mind was too full of buzzing anxiety to allow for stillness in his observation. He poured himself a glass of water and sipped slowly, allowing himself some space to breathe before beginning again.
“First, it was only small things—deliveries were late, shipments of grain would come in, and there would be problems. But then I began to notice that there was a woman I had never seen before hovering around, involved in all of the business affairs of the bakery, constantly at M. Braind’s elbow. When I began to inquire as to who this woman could be, no one seemed to know who I was talking about.”
“That is indeed odd,” murmured Raineau, jotting some notes in the margins of his already full notebook. “And what then?”
Gabbai wrinkled his nose and furrowed his brow at the man’s eagerness.
“‘What then’ is I went to more homes and visited more ailing and distressed families! Mme. Charpail and her sister Francine, both victims of the convulsive episodes. The neighbor down the street who kept seeing an unknown doctor with no visage, only a grinning white skull, trying to enter her home. Little Marie-Joseph had escalated and been taken to hospital, strapped to the bed as she railed against her visions and pain. ‘What then’ is the town literally descended into madness, hundreds of people impacted by a bit of distributed bread.”
“Forgive me, I meant no disrespect.”
“You are right in one thing, however, and I did know that I had to get to the bottom of this mystery as soon as possible if I was going to get out ahead of this disease. The lives of everyone in the village literally depended upon it. I cannot exaggerate the seriousness of this illness. Now, removed from the madness, it seems as though we must have been blowing the situation out of proportion. But sons were attacking their mothers, men took their shotguns to the streets, person after person described witnessing their hearts exploding out of their chests, gruesome visages staring out at them from all angles, and snakes writhing in their bellies. I made my way back to the bakery.”
At this, Raineau went quiet, uncharacteristically, if this short interview were anything to indicate disposition. Pen poised above the page, Raineau peered above the rim of his spectacles, eyebrows gesturing to continue.
“M. Briand was famed in the area for his bread, he took pride in how pure white his loaves were, selling his goods with that claim at the forefront of his value proposition. As one would suspect, he was resistant and quite offended by the perceived accusation that his bread had caused such turmoil. The fact still remained that his bakery was at the epicenter of all of the primary incidents.”
“Even though my first attempts to glean information were unsuccessful, I kept watching. The appearance of the woman I had first noticed days before had become more frequent. I marked her comings and goings, alarmed to discover that I could never quite pinpoint when she arrived or when she took leave—it was as though she would appear and disappear out of thin air.”
Raineau paused his scribbling here and looked up quizzically. “Was there a side entrance or some other such method that you did not initially note? Or perhaps sleep deprivation deceived you?”
The corner of Gabbai’s mouth quirked in a slight, wry smile. He leaned forward even further, as though to whisper conspiratorially. Lifting his right index finger to the side of his nose, he whispered, “Ah, one would hope! Alas, non. This would happen even along the alleyway closed off from all entrances or means of escape.”
Leaning back into the creaking leather, Gabbai gave out another sigh as he pinched the bridge of his nose, rubbed his hand over his suddenly tired face, and returned to his previous casual and calm posture.
“Non. If it were only suspicious comings and goings, it would have been easy to rationalize. It was a compounding of circumstance that brought my suspicions from niggling in the back of my mind to overwhelming the forefront of my imagination.”
At this, Marcus Rainau was clearly a bit out of his depth. Setting down his pen, he crossed and uncrossed his legs, brow furrowed in consternation and perplexity, clearly trying to work out how to continue forward. He began, “Monsieur, Doctor…Bernard, I am beginning to detect that this story may be following lines of thinking with which I was not prepared to handle. How is this related to the story I have come to report upon?”
“But it is the story, Monsieur. It is not the one that the newspapers told at the time, nor is it, I suspect, the story you thought you would be telling now. Permit this old man this one indulgence.”
With a sigh, Rainau retrieved his pen from the crease of the binding in his notebook. Gesturing with it as a conductor indicating to an instrumentalist to begin to play, “Continue,” he breathed.
“As I was saying, it was a compounding of circumstance. The woman, I found, was impossible to remember in any detail. I could see her, clear as day, and, upon trying to recollect her features, would be entirely at a loss. When trying to describe her to someone, it was as though the description carefully crafted while observing would be plucked from my memory, like a plum from a branch—perfect and whole, with nothing left on the tree to indicate its presence other than the certainty that, yes, this tree bore fruit.”
“I began to notice that M. Briand and his patrons did not seem to ever interact with or even notice this woman, never speaking with her, gaze passing over her as though she were nothing more than a mundane part of the everyday scenery. And yet, even without direct interaction, her presence could be noted. A grey pall began to appear on the cheek of M. Briand and his regular customers. The bakery itself began to take on an aura of foreboding.”
“During all of this time, of course, I was still visiting my patients and making a detailed note of how the madness was continuing to radiate out from this central locale, the neighborhood surrounding La Grande Rue. It was enough for me to determine that I must get closer and see what happened behind closed doors.”
Raineau cleared his throat uncomfortably at the implications in what was just said but made no further attempt at interrupting Gabbrai’s narrative. His pen flying ever faster over the page, he kept scribbling until the ever-paler Doctor continued.
“What this meant, of course, was a stakeout of sorts. I had never been involved in any investigation beyond epistemology, so I felt ridiculous like I was playacting—sneaking through the streets in the middle of the night. But I knew the best time to catch whatever may be going on behind the scenes, so to speak, would be in the early hours of the morning when the baking of the bread began.”
“I crept up to the window that led into the back of the bakery where the ovens were located. It was covered with wooden shutters, locked tight. But there was a chink in the aged wood that allowed me to peer through the pane into the room behind it. There was M. Briand, mixing his flour into a dough. He appeared as he always did, and I remember letting out my breath that I had not known I was holding.”
“Until suddenly, I saw her, and that breath caught again, choking me. She appeared behind M. Briand, unknown to the man. Barely a wisp, and she pulled behind her a smokey grey river that floated in her fist and trailed behind her out the door. She whispered softly to M. Briand, and he began to murmur unintelligible words as she fed the river of silver into the dough in his hands.”
Bernard had stopped moving almost entirely as he recounted these events. His hands now gripped the armrests, fingertips and knuckles bright white against the aged coffee brown, his back rigid as a fence post. Raineau, too, had gone still, barely breathing with pen gripped tightly in his no longer recording fingers. Bernad continued at a whisper.
“I frantically trailed the smoke she held in her hands, and once I could see it, I could follow it and was surprised to discover that it connected to many homes, writhing in between cracks in windows, lurking through bedrooms while people soundly slept. It wasn’t until I saw the ghostly face of one of my patients floating along an invisible current within the stream that fear well and truly gripped my heart.”
“Frozen in fear for I know not how long, I gaped at the sights before me. But when I turned back, the woman’s deed was done, and she turned to me, stared directly into my face, and smiled. It was enough to still my blood but also enough to shake me from my reverie. I burst into the bakery, much to the surprise of M. Briand, only to find the phantom had disappeared with the mist and a baker who was none the wiser.”
“I knew I could not tell anyone of what I saw. Who would believe me? And I ran the risk of being hospitalized myself, assumed to have been plagued by the same illness that now struck down so many. I also could not risk implicating M. Briand, as the man was clearly unaware of his role. But I had seen the source, I knew the cause. I had seen the souls of my neighbors being leeched into the bread. I had seen their grey faces in lumps of grey dough that M. Briand then baked into perfect white loaves. No one was any the wiser. I watched with increasing panic as people continued to feed on their neighbors, and the madness continued to rise. It wasn’t until M. Briand himself took ill, that there was a turn in the epidemic.”
“With no one to bake the bread, the cycle had ceased. I, however, did not feel relieved until the phantom that had come to haunt us no longer appeared, lurking in the shadows. And as quickly as it had come, it left us. People healed, we buried our dead, and life moved on. They wrote it off as bad grain, a fungus that infected the brain and caused violent illness and hallucination. It was finally over… Or so we thought.”
Raineau’s eyes lifted suddenly, searching Gabbai’s face. He chuckled nervously, “You are trying to have one over on me now, aren’t you?”
Gabbai looked so very tired and heavy with sadness. He returned, “I only wish that could be true. You must wonder, now that you have heard my tale, why I agreed to speak with you at all. I confess it is because of your distasteful eagerness to get at the details of what, by all accounts, is a horrible tragedy. I felt that you would perhaps be most receptive to hearing me out, and that is what is necessary now, after all.”
“You see, I needed you to believe me, maybe not entirely, but have an inkling of desire to believe. I needed someone to take over for me, for my investigation into this matter is coming to a close. I, my dear Marcus…do you mind if I call you Marcus? I feel as though we are friends now.”
Marcus hesitated, then stuttered, “I mean…of…of course. But what do you mean, your investigation is coming to a close?”
Gabbai let one final, tired smile cross his face, as though relieved, and replied, “She has been here all along. She blames me for the outcome, for the failure of her machinations. My punishment has been to sustain her. My life is coming to a close, as my soul is eeked out piece by precious piece. I believe, once the final wisp of my soul leaves my body, she will have the strength yet again to begin. I needed you to see, for you might be the only one who could, so that the final good thing I could do with my life is perhaps set events into motion to stop history from repeating itself.”
Bernard Gabbai looked off again into the distance, and with his last rasping breaths, he pointed at something behind Marcus Raineau’s shoulder. Seized with panic, his rational mind clawing the inside of his skull, demanding he get ahold of himself, Marcus forced himself to turn. Ever so slowly, he glanced behind his right shoulder, letting his eyes glide up from the floor to the intricately carved wooden arm of his chair. Not able to stall any longer, he lifted his gaze and landed on the one thing he was certain he would not see, the grinning face of an uncanny woman as she tugged the last threads of life from Doctor Gabbai and wound them around her fist.
I kept picturing Mr. Croup and Mr. Vandemar from Neil Gaiman’s Neverwhere when approaching this prompt. When confronted with the (no spoilers) outcome of that book, I like to think that they went into business for themselves, harnessing the powers of capitalism and their…very particular skillset. I did not actually want to write Neverwhere fan fiction, sadly, so I did not go in this direction, and I do believe my piece is all the worse for it.
Subject: Interested in estimate, rush service
hi… I dont really know how to start, but I am in need of an car upholstery detail need it by tomorrow situation an emergency…
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need4speed: hello, am i doing this right?
Tiff: Hi there, need4speed! How can I help you today?
need4speed: um…i need a job done…a car upholstery detail I think
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need4speed: okay i am back
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need4speed: for a meeting by 6 PM and can’t be found in less than good condition.
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need4speed: ya, it has to be done by tomorrow night
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need4speed: antoni provolone
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Tiff: I am back with that estimate. I do apologize for the wait!
need4speed: no worries, can we maybe hurry this up tho
Tiff: Absolutely! So for the service you requested it is going to put you at 1.08 bitcoin plus a 50% rush fee (.54 bitcoin). Additionally, because you contacted us from an unsecured account we have added a security deposit of 100% total service fee (1.62 bitcoin) which will be returned to you upon completion of servies. This is to ensure the safety of our personal and our time investment. Once I have added that fee and the security deposit, the grand total will come to 3.24 bitcoin.
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need4speed: no i guess not
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From: Hurley Funeral Home Services
To: Mr. and Mrs. Provolone
Subject: Our condolences in this difficult time
Dear Mr. and Mrs. Provolone,
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