Thursday, February 18, 2010

Homunculus--A Story

I had no awareness of it until days after we settled into the house. I walked down into the basement to store away some items when I saw in a shadowed corner a stone statue of hardly more than two feet in height. I drew closer to examine it and observed that it was a sort of doll, an image of a weathered little man with a skull-like face and arms folded tightly across its body. I had never seen an image such as that and certainly did not expect it to be part of the decoration in a home.
Yet, my wife and I had acquired the house fairly rapidly. The house had been put up for sale after its previous owner had been the victim of a grisly murder that caught the attention of all the local media. The owner had been stabbed repeatedly in what appeared to be some form of ritual slaying. The grim facts of the homicide had dissuaded many from considering purchase of the property, with the attendant result that I had been able to buy the house, an old Victorian with gingerbread trim, for a pittance.
My wife and I loved everything about the house. It was spacious and full of light. The window looked out onto a pleasant park across the way. Despite its unsavory history, the house seemed the perfect place to raise the children my wife and I hoped to have.
This little mannequin, however, was not particularly pleasant. Its sunken eyes were like dark sockets and its grinning teeth were tightly clenched. The cradling arms pulled the figure inward, encircling and shielding it. It seemed to wear a chiseled robe that covered the top of its head down to the toes. Looking more closely at it, I discerned that it held what appeared to be a dagger in its left hand as the left arm folded over the right.
I thought to discard it immediately but my curiosity about it outweighed that initial impulse. When I showed it to my wife, however, she laughed and said that it belonged in the trash. I felt, though, that at the very least we should investigate its value. The former owner had apparently been a collector of art objects, many of which commanded a sizeable sum at the auction of the estate. Somehow the statue had escaped notice or interest, remaining in its dark corner. Perhaps its enclosed posture had protected it from scrutiny. Nonetheless, for all I knew, the sculpture might have been a work of significant cultural or historic value. I certainly did not want to relegate a potentially valuable piece of property to the dustbin.
I consulted an encyclopedia and then the internet to find out what manner of object this was. My efforts, though, were to no avail. While it seemed a fetish of some sort, I had no historical or cultural frame of reference to explain it.
Fortunately, I teach at a business school in a large university and, therefore, was able to contact professors in the fields of anthropology and art history. One professor, an anthropologist, had interest in discussing the object and examined a photograph I took.
“A curious piece,” the professor said, “but recognizable.” He removed his glasses and looked directly at me.
“They are very rare,” he continued. “I’m surprised that a home in this country would have one.”
“Is it valuable?,” I asked.
“That depends on that you consider of value. Despite their rarity I don’t believe too many people would want to buy it.”
The professor explained that in certain cultures an object such as that was placed in the home of an enemy to cause physical and psychic destruction.
I immediately thought of the previous owner of the house. There was that grisly murder. Had some enemy of his placed that object there or had the former owner purchased it as an object d’art without knowing of its sinister provenance?
“Wouldn’t someone just get rid of it?,” I asked.
“That would be rather pointless,” the professor said, wiping his glasses with a handkerchief. “Once placed, the spirit embodied in the statute would remain. You could smash the stone into a million pieces and it would make no difference.”
The notion that some demonic force had by design or sheer accident occupied the house I purchased invaded my mind. Although by training and temperament, I was used to statistics and empirical research, I found difficult to dispel what the professor had said about the object. I could not accept the professor’s calm and rather unhelpful assertion that any attempt to remove that horrid little statue was an exercise in futility.
“Perhaps I could donate the piece to the university?,” I asked.
“That’s very kind of you but we are not collecting such pieces,” he said with an empty smile.
“You did say it was rare.”
“We are not collecting. You might try an art dealer in town.”
The professor shifted his body in his chair as if to suggest to me that the time for our discussion had ended and that I was now overstaying my welcome. He began to gather some papers on his desk, already mentally dismissing me.
“You don’t want it, do you?” I said with a louder voice than I’m accustomed to using. “You don’t want the evil object brought to your office.”
The professor looked up at me from the papers as if he had suddenly been confronted with a madman.
“I don’t know what you are talking about,” he replied in the quiet tones one employs with distressed persons. “You certainly don’t subscribe to some ancient tribal beliefs, do you? It’s all just magical thinking.”
He turned back to his papers but looked up once to make sure that I had made my way to the door.

Having offered to sell the item to several of the art dealers in the city, to donate it to a local museum, and to present for bid on an internet auction, with all such efforts meeting rejection, I realized that I was stuck with the hideous mannequin. My wife reminded me, in her distinctive manner of plain speaking, that the statue belonged in the garbage. I could not, however, bring myself to destroy the object with its potentially venerable history and, I confess, I had come to be afraid of it. Besides, as the professor said, whether it was thrown out or not, the object seemed to stain the occupants with its malevolence. Therefore, I left the stone intruder in its corner of the house and tried to forget it. The more I tried to forget, however, the more it invaded my mind until, whether at work or in my bed at night, I continually beheld its taut carved face staring at me.

There is a moment when a door opens, or a curtain is pulled back, and you see the other side of things, that place of nausea and disturbance that exists despite our sunny blue skies. For years, I had walked around in a little bubble that constituted my rational world. That bubble burst as I waited for the evil works of the malignant statue. I knew that it was not satisfied with murder of the former owner and was planning some other cruel misdeed. Sure enough, my suspicions were confirmed when my wife came home from the doctor and whispered to me that he had found a lump requiring a biopsy. I reassured her that we would do everything possible to ensure her health, but when she had gone into our bedroom to lie down, I walked into the basement, picked up the statue, and hurled it against a wall. It did not break but heavily thudded on the floor and rolled face up with its grim, constipated expression. I wanted to smash that dreadful mannequin with a hammer and watch its pulverized body grow smaller and smaller until at last there was nothing but some bits of stone to sweep away. Yet, I knew it would do no good. I could vent my irritation all I pleased. The house we bought in the expectation of joy and peace was already marked by that silent, enclosed visitor whose whole business was to spread malevolence wherever it was conveyed.
Made by some ancient hand, the object came as a dark inheritance. I knew of no solution but to sell the house yet I could not bring myself to consider selling to an innocent buyer unaware of the visitor in the basement. The issue, however, is moot. My wife won’t leave. She says she loves the house and, in any event, she would never believe that the house was infected with this pestilence. I don’t want to trouble her, particularly since the doctor has said that she requires an aggressive course of chemotherapy. I often see her sitting near a big window full of light. If only that light could enter and cleanse. I know I cannot leave her.
Thus, I must remain in the presence of that severe homunculus while my blood runs cold.

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