The Colubrine

23 Sep

Since arriving in Kilkenny in 1845, Dr. Simeon Shee had been busy establishing a medical practice. Yet he had managed to overhear gossip about the strange residents of the castle overlooking the Irish town.

A reclusive pair, he a frugal skinflint and she a fading invalid, that was how rumor characterized the two batty hermits. They were lost and lonely, living with and for themselves only.

The physician’s interest was aroused by these tales.

Then, on a clear, bright day he received a written note from the landed lord requesting that he come at once to examine and treat the ailing mistress.

The doctor grabbed his bag of instruments and headed for what remained of the great Norman fortress overlooking the town and the Cathedral of St. Canice.

An aged servant in a black suit ushered Shee into a long central gallery where a tall, spare figure with silky blond hair and hazel eyes approached the visitor.

“I am happy you came so soon, Doctor,” began Burgo Butler. “My wife’s condition, a chronic anemia, has worsened of late. She has not enjoyed a full night of sleep in a long while. Once I learned of your arrival and opening of practice, I decided to have a fresh pair of eyes have a look at my Alice.”

“How long has she been confined in bed?” asked Shee with sympathy.

The aristocrat frowned. “It is quite a while, over a year. She tried to go out for a ride in our horse carriage but returned home exhausted and weakened. Ever since, her condition has deteriorated. Physicians have visited from Waterford and Clonmel, but none of them was able to do anything beyond prescribing useless pills. So, when I found out about your arrival in Kilkenny, I decided it was wise to have you have a look at her.

Butler led the way to the end of the wood-paneled gallery and opened the door into a large, ornate bed chamber.

A small, round face with whitish blue eyes looked up from a giant pillow at the head of a canopied bed made of expensive pine.

“Here is the physician I told told you about, my dear,” announced the husband. “I shall leave him with you to make his examination, diagnosis, and recommendations.”

With that, Burgo Butler went away, leaving doctor and patient to themselves.

Shee began by taking the pulse of the pale woman. Opening his case, he took out a thermometer and measured her temperature. A visual examination of eyes, ears, and face followed. His attention was drawn to certain small marks around her thin mouth.

A gear in his brain clicked.

“Tell me, have you suffered any insect bites? Have you felt any pain or itching about your mouth?”

A tiny tremor seemed to shake her for a moment or so.

“No,” she bluntly asserted. “I have not experienced anything of that order.”

“I see,” said the doctor, forcing a smile. “By the way, could you tell me what your age is?”

“Thirty-nine,” she replied with a touch of unconcealed anger.

“By your speech pattern, I take it you are native to this region and county.”

Her eyes clouded over. “My father is only an innkeeper in the town. It was said that my husband broke the Statutes of Kilkenny when he took me to be his bride.”

Shee made himself smile. “I shall have a medicinal preparation provided for you. May I return in a few days to see how you are doing, Madam?”

“Certainly,” she responded, turning her face into the gigantic pillow.

Returning to his rented rooms late that afternoon, Shee took a reference book from a shelf to refresh what he remembered of Irish history.

The Statutes of Kilkenny, enacted in 1366, aimed at enforcing complete separation between the Anglo-Norman conquerors and the native Celts. On pain of death, both intermarriage and social intercourse were forbidden. The Irish population had to live outside the city walls of the town. The Gaelic language and personal names were banned by these draconian laws.

So, these were the regulations, now dead letters, that Butler and his wife had broken.

Bursting with curiosity, Simeon decided to find the father of his new patient.

He knocked on the door of his widowed landlady and inquired where was the tavern owned by the parent of Lord Butler.

“Down by the River Nore,” she informed him, grinning slyly. “That is where one can find the establishment of Eustace O’Grady, sir.”

The owner was a huge, brawny man with pure white hair atop a boxlike head.

“You must be, then, the new physician recently come from Dublin,” said the aproned one behind the high bar. “How can I serve you? What can I offer for your pleasure?”

Shee ordered a large pot of stout. He lifted it and told the barkeep “To your health, my good man, and to the health of your suffering daughter. I was summoned today by her spouse to make my own diagnosis of what it may be that ails the woman.”

O’Grady appeared to give a start at what he had just heard.

“That is what might be termed a surprise. My high-born son-in-law has the reputation of being tight with his pounds and shillings. What has he told about how her illness started?”

Simeon decided to keep nothing back. “It was she who described her fall while out riding in a carriage. But the condition plaguing her goes far beyond what that could have caused.”

The two men peered at each other.  The same white-blue eyes, thought the doctor.

“I rarely see the girl,” confessed Eustace. “He does not like to see me about his castle, and does all he can to keep me away. A strange bird he is, despite family name and tradition and all that. Perhaps he regrets having married so far below his station. It may be his aristocratic pride that influences him that way.”

The pair remained quiet for a time. Dr. Shee took a swig from his pot.

“Burgo Butler never forgets he comes from the Norman invaders,” whispered O’Grady under his breath. “His people brought some strange ways with them when they first came here.”

“What are you getting at?” the physician dared ask.

The father did not answer immediately, but looked up and down the bar, empty but for his new acquaintance. When he again spoke, his voice was nearly inaudible.

“That castle has seen many unnatural sights, over many generations. That is the reason I wish she did not lie there in bed, but was far away from that master of hers.”

Simeon finished drinking, paid his tab, and decided to leave.

“We must get together again,” he told O’Grady. “I think that I can help her. You shall be informed of the steps I take in my treatment of your daughter.”

In two days, the doctor returned to the Dowager House of Kilkenny Castle for his second session with the unusual patient. Burgo Butler having left the bedroom, Simeon repeated the procedure of his first encounter with Alice. But as he finished, an unexpected proposal came from him.

“Let me hear your heart beat,” he murmured. “I shall have to place my ear gently on your breast a brief time. Do not be distressed, there will be no pain or discomfort for you, I promise.”

She gave what looked like a reluctant nod and he lowered his head sideways to hear how her heart functioned. The raising and lowering motions of her lungs was soon being timed by him.

In his bent position, Simeon suddenly felt a cold tingle on the back of his neck, as if some heavy pointed object were touching him there.

He jerked his head upward. As the face of Alice came into view, he noticed an unfamiliar expression on her face. The sight appalled and terrified him.

The whitish blue eyes of his patient now had a carmine glow of some kind. Her tongue protruded out for a moment over her thin lower lip. What he saw shocked and stunned the doctor for several seconds.

All of a sudden, though, these unusual signs disappeared.

Again, the doctor gazed at the odd marks about her mouth.

“I shall leave you some medicines,” he calmly declared. “Improvement in your condition is visible, but much more is needed. Can I return in two or three days?”

“Yes, of course,” she replied, as if not present but elsewhere.

Smiling broadly, he made his way out.

Talking with Eustace O’Grady at his bar, the doctor learned that the man was a fervent Irish nationalist, a follower of Daniel O’Connell and the movement for Catholic emancipation and the end of the union with Britain.

It was a surprise how wide was the knowledge of the tavernkeeper in the area of Irish history and folklore. He spoke on many topics with familiarity.

“Much of the misery on our isle arose from the hatred of Balor, the one-eyed god of darkness who held sway over us in pagan times. And the coming of the Norman warriors took us down to the lowest possible depths. They were forbidden to marry or associate with the Celtic population. But there occurred liasons of a sinister nature from the start. Are you familiar with the term colubrine, my friend?”

“No, I am not,” answered the doctor, eager to learn what the other was getting at.

“A colubrine was a flesh-eating snake that arrived with the Norman invaders. It possessed an insatiable hunger for human flesh. These vicious serpents actually dwelled within the Normans themselves, those that were their carriers. Creeping down with them from their fortress castles, the aristocratic monsters attacked, killed, and consumed the bodies of the despised Irish peasants.

“This was a horrible curse on our ancestors. It terrorized and weakened them, allowing domination from London by the English crown. Have you never heard of the colubrines, both the serpents and their human hosts?”

“No,” admitted the other. “How can I find out more on the subject?”

“I have an old work of folk poetry that can help you out.”

The barkeeper excused himself so he could get the book in question from his quarters in the rear.

Simeon waited with anticipation to look into an area that appeared interesting to him.

Waking up later than was his custom the next morning, Dr. Shee sensed an odd stiffness and langour inside himself.

In minutes his landlady appeared with an envelope delivered for him a little earlier. He took and opened it. He discovered a note from Burgo Butler inviting him to come to the castle for dinner at seven that evening. Alice had risen fom bed for the first time in months and was able to walk and eat meals with her spouse. She wished to see and thank the one who had healed her.

Excitement seized hold of the mind of the recipient of the invitation. It was not to be a professional but a social call by him. There would be opportunity to explore without formality.

What personal secrets might be uncovered? he wondered all that day as he saw patients from the town.

The male house servant opened the front door and led him down the gallery to the dining chamber. The Butlers were already seated there, awaiting his entrance.

Dim candlelight from above illuminated a long oaken table.

Burgo sat at he head, Alice at he opposite end. The servitor seated Simeon half way between them.

Greetings were exchanged with the guest. The physician asked his patient how she felt now that she was out of bed.

“I am free and liberated!” she laughed. “I have become a new Alice since you started to treat me, Dr. Shee,” she said with a bright grin.

The food was wheeled in on a cart and served by the butler and the cook. Roast lamb with potato and cabbage cokannon was placed on plates and distributed. No words were exchanged till emptied plates were removed and glasses of port poured.

Simeon observed that both Butlers were drinking tonight. He slowly sipped a little himself.

Suddenly Burgo rose to his feet and lifted his glass in a toast to the physician.

“My wife and I owe you a debt for what you have contributed to her health. She has been enlivened and invigorated. Alice now walks, eats, and even drinks as years ago.This is outstanding, my friend. It brings the three of us closely together, may I say.

“Let me make a proposal: that we become a familiar trio of intimate companions.

“As you have aided us, we intend to help you as well.”

Simeon, his eyes on the husband, did not at once notice how Alice rose from her chair and moved over toward him.

When he turned his head around, the doctor saw what he could never have foreseen.

An eely, anguine form was emerging out of the mouth of his patient.

Its color was a scalelike yellowish green. Beads of dark sapphire indicated eyes as Alice stepped closer and bent down toward him.

A reddish orange tongue, small but brilliant, darted out of the woman’s mouth.

Unconsciousness struck Dr. Shee a moment before a colubra snake forced open his own mouth.

He did not witness the consumption of internal tissue that ensued within himself. Simeon had not noticed the sofa in the back of the dining room upon which he woke up.

Burgo Butler stood near by. His wife sat behind him in an antique chair. The voice of the aristocrat came in a crisp but guarded whisper to the ears of the confused physician.

“You have become our secondary by providing valuable heart flesh for my wife. Let me explain for you what that means.

“I inherited my internal colubra at birth. That gave me my insatiable hunger for organ flesh. I began to eat raw animal meat at a very early age. But it was human food, especially from the heart, that my resident snake craved the most.

“When I wed Alice, I was compelled to make her my provider. The result, in time, was for my own colubra to reproduce itself within her. She became the secondary to my own inhabitant. But her snake had a difficult time finding any human heart to feed on. She grew weak and ill, forcing me to call in medical people. You became our final hope.”

Burgo Butler frowned, then went on. “Now, the three of us are alike. You will, in a short time, have within you a new colubra hungry for the heart tissue of human beings. We three can, to a small degree, supply each other a little sustenance. But it will be your duty, Dr. Shee, to go forth and find fresh sources of flesh for us. You shall be our explorer and primary supplier”

Simeon felt his head spin. He was caught within a circle that held his fate and future in its grasp.

Alarming news spread though Kilkenny.

Dr. Shee had abruptly left town. He had told his landlady that he planned to migrate to America and never return to his local medical practice.

No one ever received any commnication from the man who had hastily fled.

Only after several days were the bodies of the Butler couple, hacked to death in a savage act of slaughter, discovered by their servants.

Burgo and Alice lay beside each other in a recessed closet, covered with a strange, gooey liquid that had congealed on their two faces.

Suspicion of what role the doctor had in these crimes lingered ever after.

Gossip spread in later years that he had never gone to America, but had died at his own hand in a London slum.

No one had any knowledge of his transformation into a possessor of a colubrine.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s