The following chapter is excerpted from Mary Toft; or, The Rabbit Queen by Dexter Palmer. Copyright © 2019 by Dexter Palmer. Excerpted by permission of Pantheon Books, a division of Penguin Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
The Keepers of the Vigil
History does not record how the first people began to gather in front of Dr. Lacey’s Bagnio, arriving one or two at a time, mostly alone, occasionally hand in hand. There was no organization, no leader, no advertisement publicizing the assembly—they just came. They would join the formation that silently rearranged itself to take them in while keeping its constant geometric order; they would leave when they were at last called home by the intruding consciousness of earthly duties or the grumblings of their stomachs. No single person stayed for more than two hours, but the gathering itself persisted, replacing those who drifted away, shrinking as night fell and growing as the sun rose, its numbers increasing every day.
Perhaps they were peculiarly attuned to the city’s unending song of itself, and could hear the strange, arrhythmic melody that it hummed in the vicinity of Covent Garden, a tune that offered a new kind of beauty to those who had the ears to hear it. Perhaps they could somehow sense that, in a room within the bagnio, the fabric of reality was slowly turning from cloth to lace, and so they found themselves drawn to a place where the truth was mutable; where, if you pushed at facts, they would kindly move aside for you instead of pushing back. Their dreams and wishes were small, perhaps, and usually meant for themselves alone, but a thousand such contrary-to-fact imaginings, working in quiet concert, might bring about a new philosophy, or a new nation.
Robert Swale was a proud Englishman and a prouder Saxon, tracing his lineage all the way back to the hardy invaders of the island’s southern shore in the fifth century (though it was perhaps true that the farther back one went in Swale’s family tree, the more that genealogy became less a science and more an art, a matter of intuition and feeling). One did not need documentary evidence to be sure of his ancestry, or so Swale thought—it could be seen in his sparkling gray eyes and broad forehead, in his height and his stoutness, in the beard that bloomed on his face mere hours after shaving. A hardy creature was Robert Swale; a lover of gustatory pleasures; an eater of many meats.
Robert Swale had gout—at least, this is what his surgeon said. But that had to be a misdiagnosis, if not an utter lie meant to convince Swale to undo his purse strings still further. There was something wrong with the big toe of his right foot, to be sure, but it was a temporary problem of the kind that crop up as one ages, soon to sort itself out once said toe recalled the hardy nature of the Saxon body to which it belonged. His surgeon had tried to push a pamphlet on him, an excerpt from the memoir of a merchant named Thomas Tryon, who felt that “Flesh does breed a great store of noxious humours,” and suggested a diet of “Milk, Pulses, Grains and Fruits,” but Robert Swale was not a child, not one to leave the dish with pride of place at the center of the table left untouched while other men of weaker constitutions loaded up their plates with roast beef. This body of his needed stronger nourishment. The idea of forgoing meat altogether seemed strangely cultish, possibly irreligious, certainly un-English.
Still, though—that God-damned toe. During his days it throbbed and hated shoes; about an hour after supper its ache invariably turned into something mean and stinging, as if an invisible asp had latched its fangs into it and was filling it with poison. Just last night it had woken him up with a stab so strong that it revealed to him a peculiar clarity of mind, its variety unknown to him before, that lay on the other side of the most extreme pain. I should just cut the damned thing off, he thought serenely. A carving knife will do the job—a few tough moments, some quick work with a bandage, and it’s done. But in the morning light Swale thought that was perhaps too radical a solution as of yet—larger shoes might suffice.
He had just purchased those shoes in Covent Garden and changed into them in front of the merchant right then and there, unembarrassed to do so, and was carrying his old ones in his hand while his new ones annoyed him with the constant slipping of their heels. On his way out of the Garden he noticed a group of eight people in two rows of four, standing patiently in front of a bagnio with a mock-Turkish facade, looking up at one of its windows. He sensed a certain tranquility about them, and, curious, he stood next to one of the men in the gathering and said, quietly, as if he wished not to disturb, “What’s this?”
“There’s a woman in there,” the man replied, not taking his eyes off the window. “She gives birth to rabbits.”
Swale believed he’d misheard, and leaned closer. “Rabbits?”
“Rabbits,” the man repeated, his voice intense and just higher than a whisper.
Swale stood next to the onlooker for a moment, observing the window—he saw a silhouette of a man behind the curtains, looking down on him in return, but could not make out his face. He got the distinct impression that he was somehow a person of import, though, a lord or a man of science.
“What are you all waiting for?” Swale asked.
“Hard to say,” the man next to him replied. “But whatever we wait for is sure to come along, soon enough.”
And, just like that, even before Swale realized that he was thinking he might change his plans and stay awhile, if only to satisfy his curiosity about these strangers, the group of onlookers shifted itself around him where he stood, so that he found himself in one of three rows of three, at the corner of a square that held the man he’d spoken to in its center.
Swale stared up at the bagnio window in silence, and as he stood there in the formation, turning his thoughts over in his mind, the throbbing in his foot began to diminish, its angry pulses becoming weaker. Within a half hour, the ache was gone, and he knew without a doubt what was true. The shoes that he had just purchased fit his feet as neatly as if they’d been made just for him: this was true. He was a Saxon man of iron: this was true. And it was true that he knew no pain.
Something was happening to Erasmus Charnock’s wife, Caroline—not all at once, but over months, over years. It wasn’t happening to him, or to them, but to her. Caroline’s eyes were fading; her face was falling; the beginnings of a knob of her spine were beginning to protrude from the back of her neck; new strands of dingy gray wove themselves into her raven-colored hair each night. Her hands were cold when he touched them, dry and papery; her voice had the beginnings of a quaver, or perhaps her once forthright demeanor was giving way to a tremulous timidity in the face of her own speedy aging. That was the problem. He wasn’t aging; she was. She was aging and becoming uninteresting, her tales, when she told them, a monotonous, meticulous recounting of the past day’s events, of her endless cleaning, and her cooking, and her eating, and her breathing. One does not expect love to persist through all the thousands of days of a marriage, nor even true joy—no wise man expects those, thought Erasmus. But Erasmus felt that instead of melancholy, he at least deserved a neutral contentment to go along with a youthfulness that had extended well into his forties, a vigor that showed no signs of flagging. Look at this man! Look at his shining eyes. Look at that mouth full of teeth, ten years since the time when an ordinary man would start to have them yanked out. Listen to that voice, its sonorous rumble that sounds as if it comes from a cello’s body. He grows a day younger with each passing day! Soon he will appear to be standing next to his mother, not his wife, when the two of them are out in public. Who, in such a situation, would call himself content?
Erasmus and his wife were in Covent Garden, purchasing foodstuffs from a stand—he thought that perhaps if he pretended love, then love would return, and a thing that a person does when in love is accompany one’s wife on errands that could be accomplished alone just as well, as if her presence were a pleasure no matter the mundane nature of the duty it entailed. But it was hard to see her selecting spinach and potatoes without thinking about how that spinach would be served before him, butterless and nearly raw, how the potatoes would be boiled too long (and cooked without beef fat, for Erasmus’s wife had gotten the absurd idea from somewhere that eating animals was, if not an outright sin, something that decent people should not do). It was difficult to look forward to the conversation that would take place over supper, which would be about the purchase of these same vegetables he was eating, describing in minute detail the very transaction at which he’d been present.
Nonetheless, Erasmus Charnock persevered. As the money was exchanged and they began to leave the Garden, they walked past a group of ten people in two rows of five, standing in an easy formation, staring up at the window of a bagnio with a mock-Turkish facade that looked out onto the marketplace. It was impossible to tell why these people were here, and so Erasmus approached a gentleman at the end of one of the rows, a big, blond fellow whose flesh hung heavy on him, in shoes that were comically large for his feet. “May I ask,” Erasmus said, “what it is you are gazing on?”
“There is a woman inside the room up there,” the man said, pointing his meaty finger at the bagnio window, “who gives birth to rabbits.”
“Rabbits,” Erasmus said.
“Yes,” said the blond fellow. “Another is due any moment now.”
“That,” said Erasmus, “cannot be.”
“Perhaps,” the blond fellow said, and turned away from Erasmus to look up at the window once again.
The dismissal infuriated him. How could he be so certain? And yet, in the back of his mind, the fact that the blond man in his ridiculous shoes seemed so sure of himself, and that others seemed sure of themselves as well, kept Erasmus rooted to the ground on which he stood.
Silently, his wife took his hand and stood next to him, and, with out noticing, the group rearranged itself into four rows of three, with Erasmus and his wife in the back, the large blond man standing next to him.
And, slowly, as he stood there meditating, Erasmus felt a love bloom in his heart, an ember that turned into a fire. This world seemed full of possibilities, and he felt he had the power to describe its shape. If this were true, this absurd thing, then anything might be true.
He looked down at his wife to ask her: Do you realize? And he saw that, once again, she was young, and her hand in his was warm, the blood within it surging.
It was important to understand that nothing had happened to Lucy Addison, nothing at all: if something had happened to her, then that would have made her a victim, and a victim she was certainly not. When she looked in a mirror she did not see a cowering, sniffling victim looking back at her; when she examined her hands they were steady, not a shaking victim’s hands. She did not have a victim’s troubled dreams; each night she slept like the dead.
She was not a victim, for being a victim entails activities and duties that she felt no obligation to perform. It means that people who come across you in the street will look at you with pity in their eyes, and smug thankfulness in their own good fortune will lie behind that pity. In the moment they will conveniently forget their own secret tragedies; they will not realize that they are no more fortunate than you are, that calamity comes for every one of us, and assumes the shape that will be sure to hurt us most.
And so there was a thing that did not happen. No grabbing of the wrist as she passed her landlord on the staircase up to the second floor of the building where she had her room, no sudden surprising twist, no foot slipping, no realizing that he’d planned to do this here on the staircase where no one would be likely to see and where she could easily be pulled off balance. His smile, when she saw him after, was a genuine smile that was well meant, with nothing nasty hiding in its corners. He was not someone who would engage in a small act of secret cruelty, meant to grow in a woman’s mind into the threat of something far worse that could have happened there, on the staircase, where no one could see. His comportment was one that commanded respect, and he was an owner of property, and because the thing did not happen, and she was not a victim, she could see the same thing in him that all others saw, and believe in it as everyone else did, and everything was easier for everyone.
Except that the thing that didn’t happen kept coming back. Her mind repeated the story of the thing that didn’t happen to her every night as she dropped into a dead person’s sleep, and every morning when she awoke; sometimes the sudden, unasked-for recall of his face stopped her in mid-stride in a city street, and whenever that happened she felt as if some knife-wielding spirit had snuck up behind her and stabbed her in the nape of her neck. This was the kind of thing that a victim’s mind did to itself. But a victim she was not. To speak of the thing would make it true, or so thought Lucy Addison—best, then, not to speak of it.
She was walking through Covent Garden; she had to get home, had to walk up the staircase to her rooms (where the foot of the man of good comportment had not shot out and tripped her heel, where he had not smiled and said, “Yes? Good” as she fell). She was not a person who feared ascending a staircase, not a person who made excuses to herself to keep from returning to the place where she lived, wandering the city idle instead—
What was this? A group of fifteen people, in a formation of three rows of five, standing before the facade of a bagnio that looked out on the marketplace, all of them staring up at one of its windows. How strange. It was hard to tell what they were looking for, and not at all obvious. She sidled up next to one of the onlookers, a woman holding the hand of a man who was presumably her husband, and said, “Might I ask what this is?”
The woman raised her free hand and indicated the window up above them. “Inside, there is a woman, performing a miracle,” she said. “She gives birth to rabbits.” “Rabbits,” Lucy said.
“Rabbits,” the woman affirmed matter-of-factly. “If we wait long enough, perhaps it will happen again.”
They were all of them oddly silent—and the woman turned away from Lucy, as if even that short conversation was a distraction best brought to an end, for there was important business to attend to—and Lucy’s confusion slowly shaded into curiosity. She had no reason to return home immediately, and so she stood and waited with them (and, as she waited, she found herself, almost insensibly, integrated into a group of sixteen in four rows of four, the husband and wife on her left, and a portly, ruddy fellow with ridiculously enormous shoes on her right).
She gazed up at the bagnio window, imagining what might be inside, and slowly, her mind cleared and became tranquil. For she realized that here, in the midst of this group of people standing vigil, was a place of wonder; in a place where anything could be true, anyone could be a writer of history, rather than a mere reader. An unpleasant page could be wiped clean of its ink, ripped out and burned, its ashes scattered (Lucy thought, as she felt a happiness she hadn’t in weeks, the weeks since the thing that hadn’t happened hadn’t happened).
Best to forget, then, to burn the nagging little memory away.
The woman standing next to Caroline Charnock looked as if she’d seen something terrible, or done something, or had something done to her. Even if she fancied that you couldn’t see it in her pallid, downcast face, you could. And perhaps in the end she would be better off speaking of it, even if it hurt her to do so. But she did not have to tell her secret here, and in fact Caroline had no wish to hear of it, not now. This was a space where it was easy to live with one’s secrets, for a little while. There was plenty of room for everyone, and no inclination to judge.
She was glad that Erasmus had brought her here, for this was a good place for him—she could see the change in him, looking out the corner of her eye. Their marriage was one from which the pleasures had been diminishing, and that was due in no small part to changes in him that she had been too circumspect to mention—his constant trumpeting of his persistent youth and virility were at odds with all the evidence, and yet he did not seem to be aware that he was less of a man than he once was, when the two of them had found each other, long ago. It was no pleasure to see one’s partner through life aging two years for every year that passed, while you yourself were still able to catch a stranger’s eye. His eyes, once shining, were becoming blurred and milky; his back had developed a stoop, and she feared that in twenty years he would make his way through the streets by staring at his feet. If he ate meat at supper he held his hand to his mouth for hours afterward, a sure sign that he would be better off with some of his teeth removed, but he took so much pride in them that he seemed to prefer the pain that came with them—thinking that he might be happier with food that was not so challenging to chew, she’d begun serving him vegetables at supper, offering a change of heart regarding the eating of animals as an excuse. Erasmus may not have believed her—she wasn’t sure—but whether or not he did, he was still a gentleman, and a gentleman always accepts the truth of a woman’s well-meant lie.
But here, in the midst of these people keeping vigil, he seemed . . . if not younger, exactly, then stronger, and nearly as virile as he claimed to be. If his visage had not changed, there seemed to be a new kind of life behind his eyes, and with it a calmness, an acceptance that growing older might mean exchanging one kind of beauty for another. Recently she had come to dislike taking his hand in hers—it was always hot and wet and clammy, as if a furnace inside him were in a hurry to burn itself out, but now, standing here among the group of people that had grown to twenty-four, the temperature of his palm had cooled to match her own. And this was good.
And look—here comes another, making his way across the marketplace to join them. And another, and yet one more.
Dexter Palmer is the author of two previous novels: Version Control, which was selected as one of the best novels of 2016 by GQ, the San Francisco Chronicle, and other publications, and The Dream of Perpetual Motion, which was selected as one of the best fiction debuts of 2010 by Kirkus Reviews. He lives in Princeton, New Jersey.