Life Among The Savages, Part 9.
Is not the human brain a truly marvelous work of Nature? In its capacity of cogitation, in its ability to formulate mathematical theorems and conceptualize the most incredible flights of imaginative fancy, modern man is peerless in all Creation. Of course this is no bold statement; humanity separated itself from the rest of the animal kingdom in that record-less time immemorial, through the power of invention alone, namely the invention of simple tools and the taming of that flickering mystery we called “fire.” Another invention – language, and the written word – is the very means by which I am able to record my tale of daring exploration and adventure. But still, the extent to which man has distinguished itself from the more brutish beasts cannot be understated. Any number of animals can be trained to act with some modest reasoning, or the semblance thereof. Those animals most associated with us show the potential for thought most especially. A dog can tell friend from foe, communicate with his pack or master, or even sense a trap some enemy has laid out. And do not the muffled barks and twitching limbs of a sleeping cur inform us that the canine too has a “sleeping life”, the dreams of which might rival our own in complexity and strangeness? Yet as much as even a dog might reason, it is clear that the human brain far exceeds the canine in all capacities, except the interpretation of scent, for which I am personally grateful.
The human race has become a thinking creature, not an instinctual one, and this is clear from our physical form as well. Our brains sit at the top of our bodies, well-ensconced in a vessel of sturdy bone, the sturdiest bone, in fact, of all the bones that support our frames, and I can personally attest to the strength of that particular skeletal element. No doubt my account thusfar has made my propensity for cranial injury apparent, but it started well before this journey. Between the corrective applications of my father’s walking stick, the rambunctious collisions of an active and indiscriminate childhood, and, in my adult life, a persistent and confounding misfortune around tool-bearing tradesmen, I estimate (as no exact count could be truly be made, given the injured body part in question is also the one responsible for making the tally) that I have received a serious blow to the head at least once a fortnight since the age of three, with the number of times I have been “knocked unconscious” making up about a third of that number. Truth be told, if anyone could be named a “connoisseur” of blows to the head, I believe I could well lay claim to the title!
Thankfully, I inherited a sturdy brain case, and a stout skull has been a source of family pride for generations. My father believed the prodigious thickness of his cranium aided him in his carrier as a barrister, as it made him “profoundly resistant to wayward ideas.” Sensible concepts, my father stated, possessed a pleasant resonance that was attuned to the human skull, and therefore entered it more easily, while ill-conceived notions had a grating frequency which most skulls could easily deflect. “The most dangerous ideas are those that have the semblance of sensibility, but none of its substance, for they can slip into one’s brain as though they were covered in butter, and then generally make a mess of the place once inside.” It was in regards to these resonant but flawed ideas that my father believed our skulls served us best. “That extra bone provides enough additional barrier to seductive, yet poor ideas to allow me –and you, most likely, eventually –” here he tapped first his head and then my own playfully with the top of his cane “– to not fall under the sway of these harmful conceptual sirens. It has made me, if I might allow myself a moment of pride, a most insurmountable rhetorician. Most persons, upon attempting to persuade me on some or other point of debate, often give up before I’ve even noticed they were speaking to me.”
Because I proceeded from a long and esteemed line of thick-skulled individuals, I often took for granted the protection I had been afforded. My time on the Holy Diver, however, made me reconsider, not so much due to the incidence of head injuries, but the short intervals in between them. Even a well-built skull needed time to repair itself. So when I woke from my slumber, safe in my bed, un-accosted by voices or falling tools, and feeling mentally a bit out-of-sorts but physically far better than I had when I fell asleep, I knew the marvel that was the human body had done its good work as I rested, and I would be able to take an active part in my travels once again.
As I woke, I noticed the good Dr. Blight standing in my room, smiling faintly as I turned and pushed myself into a seated position. “Ah. So you’ve finally come ’round. Good, good.” The doctor took a seat on the bed and began to once again examine me, so as to quantify my recovery. He massaged my left eyeball as he spoke. “You’ve had some of the crew and passengers quite worried.”
“Worried?” I exclaimed. “Surely they were being needlessly dramatic. My wounds were not so grave.”
The doctor finished with my eye, and moved his hand to the side of my neck to monitor my heartbeat. “In my initial estimation, no. And now I am certain you’ve made a complete recovery. But your convalescence was a bit more… protracted than the others expected. Not me, of course, I’m a man of science.” Dr. Blight pulled out a handkerchief. “Now spit into this rag. Really clear yourself out.”
I summoned up what I thought to be an appropriate amount of sputum, and the doctor scrutinized it for some time with the trained eyes of a noted physician. He poked at the sample for further assurance, and then wiped his finger on his pant leg. “Yes, right as rain by now. Good color, by the way. In the phlegm, I mean. You look a bit pale, but some time on-decks will revitalize you. Fully to be expected, given the time you’ve been out.”
The doctor’s phrasing worried me, as it implied I had been recuperating for significantly longer than I had anticipated. “Dr. Blight,” I said, “might I inquire as to the length of my convalescence?”
“Certainly,” the good doctor said, and then began cleaning his glasses with a corner of the handkerchief. He busied with this task for quite a while, and then, as if startled, said “Oh, you were asking right now. You have an excessive politeness about you, my lad. Laudable, but a bit indirect. No matter. You were in a recuperative coma, which was probably the best thing for you, after so many severe blows to the head. You were raving at one point, spoke of a man who hiding beneath your bed –”
“I was not raving, Dr. Blight, I heard him speak.”
“– and after that fell dead away. Small concern there. Not always the best thing to let the recently concussed engage in napping of any sort. But it seems to have worked out fine.” Dr. Blight replaced his glasses, put away his kerchief, and began to massage my eyeball again, in the manner of verifying his previous investigation.
“But Doctor: how long was I in this recuperative coma?”
“Six days,” said Dr. Blight, and my blood chilled. “Which reminds me: you’ll probably want to shave. I’ll have some water and a razor brought to you.”
Feeling the stubble that had arisen from my cheeks. “Six days! I had no idea. It felt like merely a moment!” I said, still coming to terms with this revelation.
Dr. Blight arose and adjusted his belt with great fervor. “Yes, my lad, it often does. But, no sense worrying about it now. The worst is over, and you’re not the only one who’ll be glad to hear. There’s one among us who barely left your side, save when it was absolutely necessary.”
My mind cast back to my last waking moments before the rasping voice beneath the bed sounded, and my conversation with the widow von Kant. Her fears about the ship – her concern for my well-being – could she have been the one at my bedside? I thrilled at the thought of the widow’s porcelain hand encircling mine, or stroking my cheek; of her lips gently kissing my forehead as I slept, attempting to soothe me; her bosom heaving as she grew more distraught with every passing moment of my unconsciousness.
I said: “Dr. Blight! Was it –”
At that moment, Starkey burst into my chamber, hat in hand and looking at first drawn and troubled, but immediately brightening upon seeing me. He rushed past the doctor and clutched and shook my hand within his own, saying “Turner told me, and I rushed down to see if he was right! And he were!” Starkey continued to shake my hand with exceptional vigor. “I was ever so worried about you, sir.”
“Oh. Hello, Starkey,” I said.
Dr. Blight said “As I was saying, Starkey has been by your side whenever duty did not require his presence elsewhere. Which was actually quite often, as he’s part of the crew.”
“But any other spare moment, I was down here, talking to you and hoping you’d snap outta that comber thing and be back with the living again!”
“Starkey here was quite invested in your recovery,” said Blight.
“It’s very nice of him,” I said.
“Cap’n said he’d throw me off the boat if I killed one of our passengers, even by accident,” said Starkey. “So I’m forever owin’ you on account of how you didn’t die!”
“A tender sentiment, if I ever heard one,” Dr. Blight said. “Starkey, why don’t you release the young man’s hand and fetch him some clean water so he can make himself presentable. The captain’s having all the passengers to dinner in an hour.”
Starkey ran off, still radiating gratitude. “A formal dinner? Are you sure I’ve recovered enough?”
“We are at sea, my boy. A dinner can only be so formal as we bounce from wave to wave. But yes, a dinner to be sure, in the captain’s chambers. Officers and passengers only. I’d say the evening fare will be considerably better than what you have had on the trip thusfar, but you haven’t eaten in a week, so it’s not really an adequate comparison.”
“The captain will be happy to see me recovered, I’m sure,” I said.
“Yes,” said Dr. Blight. “Happy. I suppose that is one word for it.” He bid farewell until the evening meal and exited the room, thankfully leaving the door unlocked.
As surprised as I was at the lengthy period of my unconsciousness, I was elated to be feeling healed and able to leave the dark and (frankly) poor-smelling cabin that had been my inadvertent prison for the last week. I smiled to myself at Starkey’s unexpected devotion; perhaps now I would be able to better associate with the crew and expand my sailing knowledge. A violent blow on the underside of the bed shattered my reverie.
“Ha! Feel that, my silent friend?”