On the morning of his interview with Dr. Alabaster, Ethan rose at dawn to claim exclusive use of the shared lavatory at the end of the hall. He wiped down the interior of the tub before adding three inches of hot water from the spigot. He bathed with a washrag, then lathered his face sparingly with soap. Other men used thick cream to shave, a practice he found not only lavish and uneconomical but a sore compromise for maintaining a keen razor. When finished, he carefully rinsed and dried his ebony-handled razor before folding it away. Again, he wiped down the inside of the tub, the spigot, sink, mirror, and every tile upon which he had stepped.
In his undecorated flat, Ethan dressed in a dark suit of a cut fashionable thirty years past. He’d bought it from a widow ten years ago, who had shared—without him asking—that her husband had been killed by wolves. Ethan had mended the suit himself. The cuffs were threadbare and the sleeves left his thin wrists exposed, but he kept it immaculate.
He ate standing up in his drab larder—his usual breakfast of dry toast and water. Afterward, he inspected himself in the full-length mirror behind the door. Satisfied in every respect, he picked up his valise, donned his bowler, and departed his flat for his interview with the doctor.
Doctor Zev Alabaster lived third in a line of decrepit row houses opposite an overgrown park. Ethan climbed seven steps to the door, where he stopped to consult the timepiece in his pocket. He was three minutes early. Facing the door, he watched the seconds pass. At the appointed time, he knocked.
He wasn’t kept waiting long. Hearing the bolt drawn back, Ethan removed his hat, and when an older man with an unshaven face cracked the door to peer at him with jaundiced eyes, Ethan extended a slight bow. “Dr. Alabaster,” he said, presenting a calling card printed on stiff, white stock.
“Professor Grimur?” the old man replied.
Ethan inclined his head.
The door scraped tile as the doctor pulled it open, admitting Ethan into a disordered foyer. “I didn’t expect you so early.” The doctor’s accent, faint enough to be almost imperceptible, recalled any number of upriver dialects.
Ethan frowned. “Did we not agree—?”
“Oh no,” the doctor said, lifting a hand to stall Ethan’s protests. “We did, we did. It’s just that you professor types are so usually late.” He held Ethan’s card at arms’ length, squinting to read the precise script. “Fashionably, isn’t that what’s said?”
“I favor punctuality over fashion.”
“How excellent of you.”
Ethan passed his bowler to the doctor, who then conducted them to a shabby study warmed by a few coals burning in a grate. Near the center of the room was a small table flanked by several stiff-backed chairs. The drapes were drawn, and from the musty, unpleasant odor, Ethan guessed the room had not been aired for some time.
Alabaster crossed the study to transfer a few coals from bin to grate. Brushing black dust from his hands, he smiled at Ethan. “The older you get, the harder it is to keep warm.” He gestured to the table. “Please, sit.”
Ethan chose the nearest chair. Laying his valise on the table in front of him, he unbuckled the straps and withdrew an unused pad of paper and a freshly sharpened pencil. He set his timepiece face-upward within easy reach, then moved his valise to the floor. The doctor, meanwhile, shrugged into a sheepskin overcoat taken from a stand in the corner.
“During our correspondence,” Ethan said, “I explained that I sometimes lecture at the university in Skaad.”
Having watched Ethan’s preparations with a look of faint amusement, Alabaster settled into the chair opposite. “On mythology, yes. Fascinating subject.”
“You yourself once taught at Skaad.”
“Indeed,” the doctor confirmed. “I came to the city when I was young—younger than you. It was my dream to live, learn, and teach in the heart of the empire.” Alabaster produced a pair of wire-frame spectacles from an inner pocket of his coat; holding these in front of his eyes, he re-examined Ethan’s calling card. “I lectured for many years on biophysics and moral theology.”
“An odd combination.”
“Not very,” Alabaster said in a distracted manner. He raised Ethan’s card in two fingers. “This says you offer your services as a ‘Fine Art Appraiser.'”
“My services are most often sought by private collectors prior to making a significant purchase,” Ethan said. “I provide a valuation of legitimate pieces. Doctor, my purpose in coming here—”
“Anything not a forgery. Doctor—”
“Do you find very many forgeries?” Alabaster asked.
“A surprising number.”
“And you’ve never been duped? You’ve never mistakenly claimed a piece of art to be authentic? Never denounced a piece as forgery when in fact it was not?”
“Of course not.”
“You are infallible, then,” the doctor declared, impressed—or seemingly so. “The charlatan’s nemesis.”
Ethan felt sure he was being mocked, but before he could defend himself, Alabaster pointed the calling card. “You appraise art, expose forgeries, and teach mythology at the university. Where do you find the time for such demanding enterprises?”
Ethan drew a short, decisive line on his pad. “I keep my social obligations to a minimum.” He allowed Alabaster a brief moment to comment, but the doctor seemed delighted with the given answer.
Impatient with pleasantries, Ethan adjusted his timepiece in what he hoped was a significant manner. “It is not my intent, Doctor, to occupy a great deal of your time. I hoped to speak not of my endeavors, but of yours.” He paused to gauge Alabaster’s reaction—which told him nothing—before continuing. “The scope of your research at the university was impressive. But it is your final, unfinished work that specifically intrigues me.”
“Unfinished? What was it that I left unfinished, young professor?”
Ethan drew a neat circle, then bisected it with a sharp line. “Your theory on the divisible nature of man.”
Taking Alabaster’s silence as invitation to continue, Ethan produced a thin folio from his valise. “The entire body of your work leads to that theory. The logical next step was to present your hypothesis and establish proof. There was an experiment—the outcome of which was tragic. That much is remembered. Filed among your records I found this.” Ethan lifted the folio. “It mentions the experiment, but only briefly.”
Ethan surrendered the folio to Alabaster, who flipped it open. Inside was a transcription, upon which Ethan had made a few small notes in an indecipherable shorthand and underlined passages of particular interest. After skimming the page, Alabaster lowered his spectacles and pushed the folio away with disdain.
“Victim,” he said. “They called him a victim.”
“His name was Mikhail. He came to me because he believed he had a sickness I could cure. He begged me to help him. He understood the risks. They—” But the doctor stopped himself.
Ethan touched the sheet of paper with his pencil. “I can find nothing more detailed than this. At the university, there are some who pretend to know; they are liars and frauds. They revel in the mystique your name offers, but cannot speak intelligently of what happened. There are also those who do know, but pretend not to. They mention surgical exorcisms, but....”
Alabaster made a noise of derision. “Is that what they say now? Exorcisms?”
Ethan shrugged. “Among other things. Invention fills gaps as readily as truth.”
“And is more comforting.” The doctor shifted in his chair. His agitated gaze touched on the page between them.
“My experiments were conducted outside the sanction of the university,” he said at length. “My proposals were denied by the university savants. Not only that—they expressly forbade me to further my research. They wanted my books closed.”
“You proceeded regardless.”
“The university towers are run by drooling old men. For all their babbling of progress, knowledge, and science—they are nothing but meek and squeamish relics. So yes, I proceeded privately.” He winced in sudden self-recrimination. “But I made mistakes. In some things, I was wrong. When rumors of my failures became known, I was stripped of my tenure and ostracized.”
“And you published nothing?”
“Our great empire is brutally unkind to those who speak knowledge that it is unwilling to hear. Greater men have died for smaller truths than what I stumbled upon, and—though I am bold in my laboratory—I am too much the coward to follow in the footsteps of those men.”
Ethan leaned forward to press his hand flat on the transcript between them. “This is why I came to speak with you: your experiment, what you attempted, what went wrong.”
“What makes my failure so enticing?”
“Your research has significant impact on my own.”
Ethan hesitated the barest moment. “The Raah.”
“Ah,” Alabaster said. “The elusive Raah. An appropriate focus for the mythologist.”
Ethan was surprised. “You’re familiar with the Raah mythos? It is too obscure a subject for most.”
“Mythology and theology are more closely related than you might think, though you won’t find many professors of theology happy to admit it.”
Ethan drew a long horizontal score across his pad, crossing it with a series of short, vertical lines. “By tracing the evolution of the Raah mythos, I’ve begun to construct a possible historical record of the Raah themselves. My ultimate intent is to prove their existence.”
Ethan stopped himself abruptly at the look on Alabaster’s face. “You think me foolish?”
“You’re chasing ghosts.”
“I realize the subject is difficult for many to consider seriously.”
“The Raah are a . . .” Alabaster moved a hand over the table as though to describe the essence of something ephemeral. “A fabrication. The nightmares of the culture from which we evolved. They are—”
“Nothing more than folklore?” Ethan supplied. “The attempt of the collective mind to explain what the sciences cannot? The uneducated, superstitious, and weak-minded drawing a face on their fears?” He had heard endless commentary on the nature of the Raah, and it bored him. He’d allowed himself to hope Alabaster would not be slave to such limited perspectives.
“A face on our fears, yes,” Alabaster said, either not seeing Ethan’s irritation, or not caring. “And what we fear most is ourselves. Man has ever struggled to deny the darker parts of his nature. Confronted with the brutality of atrocious men, it is far better to blame an imposter than to believe man himself capable of such behavior. We invent a scapegoat upon which to heap our evils so we will not have to bear them ourselves.”
Ethan looked at his timepiece.
“They help us to sleep, you see?” Alabaster continued. “They help us to feel safe with ourselves. But if there is no scapegoat—if we allow the offender his humanity—Ah! Then we must accept that the capacity for such evils is intrinsic to our race. We must accept that it is possible to become that which is abhorrent to us.”
“What men abhor, and why, is no concern of mine,” Ethan said.
Alabaster sat a little straighter. “No concern? But you are a mythologist! What is mythology if not a catalog of all that men fear, hate, and love. All that we fail to understand?”
Ethan rebuked himself for letting the doctor subvert his interview and moved to regain control.
“Let us for a moment, Doctor, consider the Raah in an historical, rather than a mythological context,” Ethan said, then continued before Alabaster could protest. “As a scholar, you are aware that we have access to histories older than the empire, much of it written in dead languages. The history of our empire is not lost, as many suppose. It is there to be found for those who seek diligently, and who teach themselves to understand.
“Of necessity, I’ve become a student of history in my search for truth, and something of a linguist. I speak seven languages, Doctor Alabaster, and can read five more. As far back as you care to look, in any language you care to read in, you’ll find evidence of the Raah as a living species, though they’re not always called by that name.”
Alabaster scoffed. “And why should they be? Every people constructs their own mythology to describe the source of all they find detestable, the wellspring of evil. The mythologist knows this.”
“Doctor, I have—”
“How far back have you looked, Professor?”
“I’ve found references to something very like the Raah in Krovian texts. The behavioral similarities are striking.”
For a moment, Alabaster seemed startled. But he quickly dismissed this with a wave of his hand. “At that distance, history and myth are inseparable.”
“Even myths contain kernels of truth.”
Alabaster’s expression turned pitying. “You dig through centuries of forgotten history to find some obscure evidence of truth? If it’s truth you want, you don’t have to go so far, or so deep.”
“I have textual evidence—”
“Insufficient,” the doctor said. “I assume you have tangible artifacts to support your claim? You have art and literature attributable to your Raah? A record of their own history, language, and mythology?”
“How can the existence of a sentient species be proved without these things—the most basic of material evidence?”
Before Ethan could answer, Alabaster leaned forward. “And the most important question: assuming they ever existed, what happened to your Raah? Where have they gone? What catastrophe purged an entire species from the face of the continent, erasing all evidence of their existence?”
Ethan was momentarily perplexed. Alabaster’s line of questioning had begun with an invalid assumption, and spiraled quickly to irrelevancy.
“You’ve misunderstood,” Ethan said carefully, even as he realized the fault was his for failing to state clearly his hypothesis. “The Raah have gone nowhere.”
Alabaster stared at Ethan. Then, as though suddenly presented with a repulsive offering, turned away in aversion.
“They exist among us now,” Ethan said. “Hardly forty years ago they were called mummers. It means—”
“I know what it means.”
“Camouflage is a vital mechanism of survival, Doctor.”
“Yours is not a new idea,” Alabaster said. His chair scraped the floor as he stood. “As preposterous today as when I first heard it fifty years ago. It is no more deserving of serious consideration now as it was then.”
Ethan rose with him, lifting his valise to the table. Withdrawing a small stack of sepia photographs, he thrust them at the doctor.
“You’ve seen these before,” he said.
Reluctantly, Alabaster accepted the photographs. He studied the first for a long moment. “Where did you find these? They couldn’t have been in the university archives.”
“They were confiscated by a gendarme who claimed to have been present when the creature was removed from a basement laboratory in Wythe. The gendarme passed the photographs to his son, who allowed me to make reproductions.” He observed Alabaster closely. “You were living in Wythe at the time.”
The doctor shuffled through the remaining photographs quickly, spending barely a moment with each image, then tossed the stack on the table as though eager to be rid of them. The glossy prints fanned out in a distasteful array.
“I see now that you’re not chasing ghosts,” Alabaster said. “It’s monsters you’re after.”
Scooping the photographs together, Ethan neatened their edges on the tabletop. Though he’d already studied them exhaustively, he examined the first of them again. Even in the company of others he didn’t enjoy having them out of the folio.
“This is the result of your experiment,” Ethan said. He turned the stack toward Alabaster, less to force the doctor to look again than to face it away from himself. “This is the experiment the university would not condone. This is a Raah.”
Alabaster winced. “No. This is just poor Mikhail.”
Ethan looked at the photograph again. A man? No, it was anything but. Wondering if the doctor’s eyesight had failed him completely, Ethan thrust the picture forward. “How can this be human?”
Disgusted, the doctor waved the photograph away. “How can it be otherwise?”
Offering no excuses, Alabaster turned from Ethan and departed.
Abandoned by his host, Ethan was left feeling both angry and foolish, wondering if the doctor would bother returning to escort him out. Seeking knowledge, Ethan had succeeded only in alienating the man to whom he’d applied. Such experiences were not new for him. He was well accustomed to others finding his nature difficult to tolerate.
Ethan still hadn’t decided what was expected of him when Alabaster returned. Under his arm he had a worn journal.
Ethan began to offer a stiff apology, but the doctor waved him to silence. He dropped the journal on the table and indicated the spread of photographs. “You’ve seen the outcome of my work. And you’ve drawn your conclusion. Do you care to hear mine?”
Ethan sat without further comment. Alabaster lowered himself into his own seat, and laid both hands on the journal’s worn cover.
“Man is diseased,” Alabaster said decisively. “The sicknesses plaguing us are called different names by different people, but the symptoms are the same: cruelty, greed, hatred.” He barely lifted the fingers of one hand off the journal. “And other things. Many things.”
As encouragement for him to continue, Ethan nodded. “I understand.”
“You don’t,” Alabaster said tiredly. “I believed these diseases to be distinct and tangible, each its own viable entity. If not sentient, at least possessed of rudimentary awareness. And not so deeply entrenched that it would be impossible for them to be isolated and removed. I set out to prove that.”
“To cure man of his sins?”
“The diseases of which I speak are not the intrinsic virtues and vices of man. They are parasites with which we are burdened. To which—some would say—we are enslaved.”
Alabaster raised a hand before Ethan could question him further. “I designed and built specialized instrumentation. I developed procedures—”
The question seemed to tire Alabaster. He made an indecisive gesture that Ethan couldn’t be certain was intended as acknowledgment or evasion. “I developed my procedures, and I applied them.”
With one finger, Ethan rotated the top photograph to better examine it. “Your subject—Mikhail?—must have been a man of vile character.”
“He was unwell,” Alabaster admitted.
“Your surgery produced this. Yet you consider it a failure?”
“The intended results were not achieved.”
“You were attempting to extract the vilest parts of man’s nature. You expected something more pleasant?”
“You prefer to believe that my subject was Raah?” Alabaster asked. “Was a beast even before scalpel touched flesh?”
Ethan turned his hands palm up, balancing two imaginary exhibits. “Good and evil are concepts dictated by society. They manifest in physical actions, not in corporeal bodies. What you exposed during your experiment was flesh and blood. Claiming it to be a materialization of the darker parts of man’s nature is absurd.”
Alabaster’s eyes narrowed. “You listen poorly, Professor.”
“Your subject was Raah,” Ethan declared. “You would not have known him to be one before you brought him to your laboratory. He might not have known himself. But the evidence speaks clearly—” he pointed at the photographs between them. “Whatever your intent, you stripped it of its mask. You laid it bare.”
Alabaster looked steadily at Ethan. “Certainly,” he said.
Ethan stopped short. “You agree?”
“It is as you say.”
Stunned, Ethan wasn’t sure how to proceed. He felt certain Alabaster did not agree, but he couldn’t very well debate someone who had conceded. He felt he had overlooked something vital.
“Mikhail was the third of seven subjects,” Alabaster said.
This was new information.
“Three men. Three women. One child.” Alabaster tapped the journal with a crooked finger. “All is documented here. But the child was the last. I could do no more after the child.”
Alabaster nudged his journal across the table, encouraging Ethan to take it.
“The first subject died under the knife,” Alabaster continued. “A complete failure. I almost ceased everything that day, but I felt I was close, so tried again. The second subject produced results much like Mikhail did later. In my fear, I destroyed it immediately. I thought something had gone horribly wrong. That I’d made a mistake. So—again.” He tapped the photographs. “Mikhail. Seeing what came from him, I thought that I had selected terrible men indeed, that their wrongs would produce such aberrations. I chose my next subjects more carefully. Are women not more pure than men? Kinder spirits? Gentler souls?”
Alabaster seemed to expect answers, but Ethan had none.
“They are not,” the doctor said. “The results were the same: monstrosities.”
He gestured at the journal in Ethan’s hands. “Read for yourself. Believe what you will. The creatures were destroyed, the husks returned to their families.”
Ethan narrowed his eyes. “Husks? I don’t understand.”
“Because you don’t listen,” Alabaster said. “What is a mask without a man to wear it?”
“Not nothing,” Alabaster said, seemingly appalled that anyone would say so. “Let us pretend a clever snake comes out of the woods, or up from the ground. He walks upright; he dresses himself in the skin of a man; he looks and speaks like a man.”
Ethan raised a hand to belay the doctor. “There’s no need to speak in parables to me.”
Alabaster slammed a hand to the table, jarring Ethan. “You come into my home with talk of Raah disguised as men and tell me to refrain from fairy tales?” He leveled a finger at Ethan. “You’re an unlikable young man, did you know that? You’re arrogant, and I dislike arrogance.”
After glaring a moment more, Alabaster began again, this time louder. “A snake pretends to be a man. He is excellently disguised, and deceives everyone—even a woman, who marries him and bears his children. These hypothetical children: are they human, or are they snakes?”
“They are half of each.”
“And that,” Alabaster declared, “is why you fail to understand. There are gaps in your knowledge, and because you cannot think beyond your own assumptions, you’ve filled them with invention.”
Ethan opened his hands, inviting enlightenment. “What then are the children?”
“The children are snakes,” Alabaster said. “They are snakes through and through. But to you and I, they seem as any other children born of any other woman. And now we see that the story has never been about their father—the snake who knows he is a snake—but rather about the children, who do not know they are snakes.
“Now answer this, exposer of forgeries, how is one to know the difference between a child and a snake who merely believes it is a child?”
“Peel back the skin,” Ethan answered with offhand confidence, knowing that Alabaster was speaking of the Raah regardless of whether he understood his own story.
“The children grow,” Alabaster continued, not bothering to judge Ethan’s answer. “They are handsome children, though they have the appetites of snakes. We cannot blame them for this; who among us can help what he is? But one day their mother discovers her precious children swallowing mice in the garden.”
“You’ve described the Raah,” Ethan said calmly. “Though I would have compared them to wolves rather than snakes.”
“No.” Alabaster said. “I’ve described Man. And my story is not done.” Though very warm in the study, he tugged his overcoat tighter around himself.
“Mortified, the woman summons her husband the snake, and together they strip the disguises from those snakes they call their children. And now they have two skins the exact size and shape of children. The skins have long been part of the deception and so carry on out of habit and instinct. They go on being little children, you see?
“Another question, Professor—you may answer or not, as you like. Is the skin more or less grotesque than the snake it once concealed?”
“I don’t know,” Ethan said. Then, “Less.”
“Less?” echoed Alabaster. His passion subsided, he seemed to have fallen to distraction. “I kept the child for days,” he said, “because I was afraid of what I’d done. And I hoped she might recover. Sometimes she spoke, but her words never meant anything. Mostly she sat and stared, barely responding. She shuffled between rooms looking for familiar things, performing meaningless gestures. Everything was a mystery to her.”
Alabaster touched his temple, as though the act of remembering exhausted him. “What should be done with such things? And what with snakes?” Apparently at a genuine loss, he looked to Ethan. “What is done with forgeries, Professor, when they are discovered?”
Ethan shrugged. “That is the owner’s prerogative.”
“Are they not destroyed?”
“A rare few, I imagine. Most are simply taken away and sold elsewhere, to someone lacking the prudence to verify their legitimacy.”
“But if it were your decision?”
“I would rather see them destroyed.”
Alabaster looked away, perhaps remembering a time when he had faced the same question. At last, he shrugged helplessly. “Perhaps that is best, but who has the heart for such things? If a beautiful painting is copied, is the copy not beautiful in its own right?”
Ethan thought not, but said nothing.
Alabaster sighed. “In my little tale, the children were sent to bed; the snakes were destroyed. You would have done otherwise, I know. But me—” he lifted his shoulders. “How can I be wiser than those in my own tale?”
The doctor looked at Ethan’s drawings. He nodded and tried to smile, though it seemed more a grimace. At length, he said to Ethan, “A man should know himself.”
“As should a people.”
“We are more alike than you think, Professor,” Alabaster concluded. “We find the same thing in different places, but call it by different names.”
With that, Alabaster put his hands on the table and pushed himself wearily to his feet. “And now I’m tired, and I want to sleep. Take the journal. Use any of it—all of it—to further your research. Find the truth, if you can. But remember, the truth has sharp teeth, and often resents being unmasked. My advice to you, though you didn’t ask for it, is that you stop searching for the Raah.”
Ethan smiled tightly. “Because they do not exist.”
“No. Because we find what we seek.”
Sliding his effects into his valise, Ethan rose to bid the doctor farewell. As he donned his hat in the foyer, a thought occurred to him, and he stopped with his hand on the door. There had been so much talk of serpents; so much talk of masks. The doctor had accused him of not listening, while saying nothing—or not enough. Turning to face Alabaster, Ethan wondered:
“What are you hiding?”
Instead of expressing indignation, Alabaster turned a sly smile on Ethan, as though they shared a wicked secret. The doctor shifted his shoulders, which for a moment gave the impression that his body was reconfiguring itself beneath the overcoat. Ethan couldn’t see the doctor’s hands, and felt vaguely threatened by this. It might have been he’d pulled them into his sleeves for warmth; it might only have been him hunching his shoulders.
“You’ve seen,” Alabaster said. “You know.”
Ethan opened the door. “Goodbye, Doctor.”
“It’s the same thing you hide, Professor.”
Ethan studied his face in the mirror of the shared lavatory at the end of the hall. Having just finished bathing, he was neither dried nor dressed.
Seven subjects, he thought. One of them a child. All of them physically torn into two distinct beings: a functional husk, and an abomination. He had read Alabaster’s journal. The subjects had come from different families, different boroughs, different backgrounds. None of them had known any of the others. All of them Raah?
Impossible, thought Ethan, rinsing his face with water.
All diseased, then?
No, Ethan decided. He could not believe in such diseases as Alabaster proffered. To find such horrors in men was expected. In women, acceptable. In a child? No.
Ethan opened his mouth, stretching wide his lips to better inspect his teeth. He probed them with his tongue, then with his fingers. He counted them.
“Masks,” Ethan said to his reflection, evoking Alabaster’s tone. “What are men without their masks?” And what was the mask without the man? And which of the two, Ethan wondered, would he recognize as himself?
Ethan unfolded his razor and leaned close to the mirror, his face inches from the glass. Holding his own gaze, he turned his head slightly. He touched the ebony-handled razor to the tender skin just beneath his right ear.
We find what we seek, Alabaster had said.
Ethan’s flesh opened with surprising ease. Blood filled his palm as he dragged the razor down the curve of his jaw. It warmed his wrist and coursed from his elbow to patter in the clean, white sink. He pressed deeper, and layers of muscle parted with a kind of shocked, thankful relief, as though bound too tight for too long.
The truth, as Alabaster had promised, was possessed of many sharp teeth.