The house of Doctor Burke on Dunn Avenue
In the spirit of the somewhat macabre history of the 17th century Puritan settlements in North America, The Town Crier presents its first-ever fiction offering in the form of a short story rooted in the Canadian Gothic tradition. Just in time for Hallowe’en, this twilight tale from Journey Prize winner Naben Ruthum promises shivers up your back and whispers in your ear.
We ask you, then, to dim the lights and enjoy the peculiar story of “Doctor Burke and Family.”
Naben Ruthnum won the 2013 Journey Prize. He is currently living in Toronto and working on a novel.
* * *
There was only one funeral. Dr. Burke requested that Madeline’s body be kept cold until the baby’s fate was certain—an easy enough task in December. Owen died five days after his mother, and two days after that, they were deposited in coffins of pine timber. Cut, the funeral director promised, from the same log.
“I’m surprised he didn’t toss the little one in with the mother,” said Mrs. Combs, the domestic who’d accompanied Madeline on the move from England to Toronto. Miles Tripp had sat next to Mrs. Combs at the funeral, after Burke had left the church, with the reverend still speaking and a minimal spread of cold victuals lying untouched in the next room.
“Burke is devastated, I’m sure,” Tripp said, stunned by the hatred in the old woman’s voice. “You musn’t say that.”
“Musn’t I? He killed her. Been killing her for a year. You think she wanted to leave London for this place? The ice, then that awful heat, then the ice again?” There was a Gladstone bag next to Mrs. Combs, and she sorted through it with her thick hands as she spoke, coming out with a folded sheet that she pushed into an inner pocket of her coat.
“She didn’t even want to marry him. Everyone knows that. She thought the whole thing was ridiculous, and it was. A shame.”
Mrs. Combs, her voice growing uncertain as tears threatened to become sobs, slid along the pew away from Tripp, taking her bag toward the exit, and, as it turned out, into a carriage and then onto a ship.
Tripp milled with the other funeral guests for a few minutes, discussing the practice he had shared with Burke when they were both new to Toronto, and how sad this last week had been. As quickly as he could, he passed through the verbal exchanges that stood between him and the conversation he needed to have with Burke.
He walked the short distance to Dr. Burke’s Dunn Avenue home and mounted the steps. Cautiously. They hadn’t been properly cleared of ice. He almost slipped backward when the doctor himself opened the door. Burke smiled. He was pale, but cleanly shaven, his eyes yellowed from the nights he’d stayed up with Owen, trying to force the baby to take a firmer grip on life. A light pest-house odor drifted toward Tripp, melding with the cloud of his own visible breath.
“Yes, just me. I’ve sacked them all,” Burke said, gesturing at the servant-less hall behind him. “Starting afresh.”
“These gusts are heading straight into your lungs.” The wind off the bay cut into the gap between Tripp’s scarf and collar; he made a gentle pushing motion toward his host, and the two men were soon in the sitting room. It was as cluttered with Burke’s books as the rest of his house. Madeline hadn’t accumulated many possessions in her short time here, spending most of the past year in her bed, surrounded by closets full of clothing that she wouldn’t wear again.
“I’m glad you’ve come, and I hope you’re not going to take up time telling me how sorry you are. I know you are. We all are.” Burke poured brandy into a pair of tumblers. The glass he held on to was smudged, and looked to have been handled liberally in the hours leading up to the funeral. He gave the other glass to Tripp, who settled into the chair nearest the fire. The Burke home was heated selectively, the sitting room and receiving room for patients being the only chambers providing anything close to comfort. Tripp was among those who thought that the chill and dampness of the home accounted for some of Madeline’s sickliness: her body’s inability to cope with the seasons, and the baby she had carried.
“You’re as well as can be expected, then? Would you like me to take your patients for the next few weeks?” Tripp asked.
“If anything I’d like to take some of yours, at your practice. This house has become impossible to live in. But yes, I suppose you should take my list on, for the time being.”
“A problem with the house?”
“Noises. Impossible to sleep.” Burke paused. “You’re still working with hysterics?”
“Yes. Started taking them in ’97.”
“Do I strike you as one? A male hysteric?”
Tripp regarded Burke for a moment, eyes eventually settling on the brandy in his host’s hand. Burke followed Tripp’s gaze and made a snuffling, exasperated noise, then threw the glass and its contents into the rear of the stone fireplace, where it shattered. Tripp took a sip of his own drink.
“I’ve been drinking steadily, but not to excess,” said Burke. “I don’t think anyone would take me to task for that at such a time, do you?”
“Of course not. What makes you think you’re hysterical? This—a time like this is bound to shake anyone. But why would you doubt your reason?”
“No shock in it. I was prepared for Madeline’s failure to survive. But him, I hear,” said Dr. Burke.
“Owen. I hear him crying, that rasping scream he had in the last few days, when he couldn’t take in anything at all. Any sort of formula, a wet nurse, even water—he wouldn’t have any of it. But he cried for it until his throat cracked, until it split. I haven’t heard a sound like it before, not in delivery rooms, not even in madhouses. I keep on hearing it.”
“Auditory hallucination,” Tripp said, affixing a term to Burke’s account before the doctor could add any more details. “I can see how it’s disconcerting, but it’s not unusual. Perhaps a bit more uncommon in men than in women, but with the depth of this shock you’ve taken? Not a source of worry.”
“I told you, there’s no shock in it. She was a sickly woman who gave me a sickly son. I’m not worried about myself. It’s Owen. How do I stop the crying?”
“Owen is dead, Burke. He isn’t crying.”
“I know that, of course I know that, but how do I stop the illusion of it?”
Tripp hesitated, and was caught immediately. Burke had always been an excellent diagnostician.
“What? What is it?”
“There’s a therapy I’ve tried for a couple of my patients. Women, women with delusions of one sort or another. It’s an untested strategy, for the most part.” The fire was guttering, and carriages from the church were rattling past the Burke home, the heads of the occupants probably peering through their windows into the paling orange light of the room where the two men were sitting. Burke began agitating the embers with a poker, and threw in a bit of kindling.
“Come on, Tripp.”
“I have them indulge the hallucination. Feed it, so to speak, which I suppose is exactly what it would be, in your case. A Mrs. Tenveen—you don’t know her, do you? Good. She kept on seeing mice, ones that weren’t there, insisting that they were running over her feet whenever she walked through a certain room at night. It came down to an anxiety about her son, who’s over at Oxford—a long, complicated story. I told her to send the servants away for a weekend, lay down an absolute carpet of mousetraps, and envision each of them full of rodent-corpse when she swept them up on Sunday evening. It worked. It’s worked until now, anyhow.”
Dr. Burke continued to poke at the fire, which had livened a bit. Without turning, he thanked Tripp, and asked him to please leave. Tripp consented, and didn’t receive any news of Burke until a midday break at his practice, some two weeks later.
He never told anyone about the conversation they’d had after the funeral.
Burke began the process that evening, shaking his head, but forcing the attempt. He’d sent Tripp away because the crying, Owen’s wailing scream, had risen to such a pitch that he could barely hear his colleague speaking, and it was clear that Tripp heard nothing. Conversation was impossible.
He took a bottle of milk from the kitchen sill and opened cupboards until he found a small bowl. Before she left, Mrs. Combs had given away the housecat at his behest, so there was nothing to mewl expectantly at Burke as he poured the milk. Only the persistent, hoarse screech from Owen, the ceaseless noise that varied in pitch and frequency just enough for Burke to be unable to shut it out. It didn’t alter as he set the bowl on the kitchen table, which seemed as good a place as any for a hallucination to take its dinner. Burke climbed the steps to his room, and was very cold until he amassed the skins and blankets that he’d gathered from his wife’s bed as well as his own. He was warm under them, but couldn’t sleep in the noise. There was a bottle on the nightstand that he began to use.
An hour later, the bottle was empty and he was at the foot of the stairs, swaying gently, trying to find a rhythm to catch hold of in Owen’s screams. The rawness of that dry and baked throat, matched with the relentless strength behind the racket it pushed out, had surprised Dr. Burke as he tried to work on his son, to preserve a life that barely existed. Madeline had that same steel when he was courting her, when she was seeing every man who called on her at her London apartment. When Burke was just one proposal among many. He had only partially meant it the first time, the stumbling request for her hand, which he made from behind the thin beard that she’d told him he must grow out if he expected to keep on being allowed to see her. Burke only asked for Madeline to be his wife a second time—this time through her cash-strapped father—because she had laughed at the first proposal. She’d embarrassed him to a degree that he barely understood, the heat of that shame pushing deep into his brain, past the part that could usefully formulate an answer. He decided then that he would devote himself to mastering both that feeling and Madeline. He began by removing the beard entirely, before going to speak to Madeleine’s father.
The small bowl was still on the table in Burke’s kitchen. Untouched, of course. Burke brought his hand down on it, full-force, breaking the bowl and consequently letting out a shriek to match Owen’s when a shard of china cut through the meat of his hand. He bled onto the stone floor for almost a full minute, staring at the puddle in a miasma of brandy and self-pity, until he noticed that the screaming had stopped. It started again when he looked up. Burke wrapped his hand in a kitchen rag and walked up the stairs, the alcohol pushing him into unconsciousness when he was properly buried in bed.
* * *
In the morning, there was no stain on the floor. The milk had absorbed into the wood of the table, and the china bowl’s fragments were scattered about, but there was no trace of blood on the granite underfoot. The screaming had stopped. Burke hadn’t heard it since waking, he realized. As he stared at the plain stone beneath him, he heard a cooing, a burble. A satisfied noise.
“Will have to consult with Tripp,” Burke said, not meaning it, knowing he would never speak to Tripp about this again. His head ached terribly, but he smiled into the silence around him in the chill, high-ceilinged room. He washed the cut on his palm, and before binding the wound properly, he opened it and poured a few drops into a saucer, setting it next to the sink. Milk had been deposited at the back doorstep, but Burke left it there.
The blood was gone by noon. Burke calculated that evaporation was impossible, and he felt both vindicated and afraid. The fear was dampened by the beautiful knowledge that he was sane, that the sound he’d heard was his indeed his son, starved for the stuff of life that his mother had been too weak to provide, her body unable even to accomplish the basic human task of a healthy birth. And now Burke himself had to nourish their son, in whatever strange form Owen had now taken.
The screaming began, gently, toward evening. There was a different note in it, this time. A wetter sound, less desperate. A call that expected an answer. Burke opened a small cut on his other hand, and pressed an ounce of fluid into a new saucer. He walked to the living room, waiting for the screaming to stop. It did. A small glottal noise, then the coo again. The saucer was empty when Burke returned.
* * *
It continued for days, the alternating crying and cooing. Burke couldn’t keep cutting his fingers, so he sent for a syringe to be delivered from the hospital. His message hadn’t been detailed, and the largeness of the steel apparatus that was delivered was a surprise. The boy who brought it left it on the step and ran away without waiting for a tip, or even for the delivery slip to be signed. Burke’s house had acquired a miserable reputation after the double-funeral.
After sanitizing the needle in a pot of boiling water, Burke found a vein in his arm and added the usual amount of blood to Owen’s saucer. The screaming didn’t abate when Burke left the room. The blood was untouched hours later, the awful noise having risen to its old pitch. “Growing,” Burke said, extracting the same amount of blood again. He added it to the saucer, and was rewarded with an early coo, a maturing gurgle. Burke lay down on one of the couches in the sitting room, and fell instantly asleep.
* * *
The feedings became more frequent, with larger volumes demanded by the bodiless, wordless voice. Burke didn’t take the time to sanitize the needle anymore. He didn’t answer any raps at the door. He looked for new veins to tap, and ignored the pains and patches of infection that began to appear on his arms. Eventually he ran out of accessible veins entirely, turning to a small paring knife that he jabbed into himself at what he thought were strategic locations, filling the dish as he could, trying to silence the boy.
The blood came more slowly now, but Owen’s need for sustenance only increased. Burke positioned a bowl under his wrist after holding the limb under hot water for a minute. Reddening the flesh, suffusing it with the fluid Owen needed. He closed his eyes and slashed, realizing when he opened them that the cut had gone much too deep, that there was far too much blood.
The scream stopped, and a coo started. As Burke took to his knees and leaned his forehead against the sink, the coo transitioned into laughter. But not a baby’s giggle. A real laugh, one that Burke hadn’t heard for a long time. The sound was close enough to the baby’s frequencies that he understood the shrieks and pacified mews of Owen had been clever imitations.
Burke hadn’t heard Madeline laugh like this since he’d proposed.