Life Among the Savages, Part 21.
“The first one to fetch my Journal of Experiments shall be my chief assistant today!” and scarcely before the words had passed from his mouth, my brother and I were scrambling to Hood’s cart to retrieve the desired tome. As each of us sought to gain advantage over the other, the race devolved into the sort of rough-and-tumble horseplay for which boys all over the world are well-known; and, as we were twins and exceedingly well-matched in terms of physical strength and stamina, the fracas inevitably fell into a stalemate, neither one of us reaching our desired goal and instead wrestling in the shadow of the good doctor’s cart, until Dr. Hood and our father would arrive and, greatly amused at our antics, separate our fraternal physicalities even as we continued to swipe and punch at each other.
“Such a thirst for knowledge!” Hood drolly exclaimed as he held back my struggling brother. “I think I shall need two chief assistants just to keep the peace.”
My father, restraining me in a similar fashion as I continued to thrash, emitted a dry chuckle. “Hood, these boys will spar at the slightest provocation. They are BORN RUMBLERS. Just the other day, that one dropped a vase on this one’s head.”
“Sounds like quite the row,” Hood said.
“The boy suffered no permanent damage. He’s quite stoutly beskulled, due to fortunate genealogy. As for the vase, its fate was far more dire, and not an uncommon one for ornaments in our household. My wife was unamused.” A weariness settled into Father’s face. “This is merely the latest in a series of violent reciprocities between my sons.” Here, my father lifted me up by my collar so that he could look at me “eye-to-eye”, and gestured for Hood to position my brother so that he could address us both simultaneously. Hood complied, and Father took hold of my brother’s collar. “They would be wise to allay their rascality before the damage to property is repaid in kind on their youthful posteriors.” Father dropped us both and rested a hand upon the handle of his sword. “Now attend to Dr. Hood’s request, and for G-d’s sake, be civil about it.”
Father set us down, and my brother and I walked abreast to Dr. Hood’s cart in a solemn, even formal manner, as if we were part of a carefully staged procession. As we walked, we took what small chance we could to push or trip each other as subtly as possible without further arousing our father’s ire. Our secrecy was perhaps overmuch employed, as Father and Dr. Hood had already moved to the sideboard and concerned themselves with the matter of beverage procurement – snifters of my father’s favorite brandy, to be specific.
Dr. Hood’s Journal of Experiments was a hefty tome, as large as the massive Holy Bible my father displayed near the entrance to his study. (Not being a particularly religious man, my father only consulted the Bible when his sons’ misdeeds sent him into an extreme distemper. His consultations were more kinetic than meditative or scholarly, consisting of lifting the Book from its podium and hurling it like a blessed missile at my brother or myself. Certain emphatic verbal invocations of the divine usually accompanied the act, along with much inarticulate bellowing and also some spittle.) The Journal’s cover was adorned with brass at the corners and along the spine, and held secure with a brass lock across the midpoint of its fore edge. The cover entire was marked with streaks of soot and grime, water marks, and many scuffs and scratches. Hood took the Journal everywhere and called it his “most steadfast companion.” My brother and I both attempted to lift it individually, but could not, and were forced to set aside our antagonism for a time as we carried the Journal to the visiting doctor and set it on an adjacent low table for his perusal.
Hood reached inside his shirt and pulled from inside it a brass key, looped about his neck on a piece of white twine. With a deft flourish, he unlocked the book and threw open its pages. Father chuckled a bit at Hood’s melodramatic theatre, but my brother and I were smitten by it; his mysterious charisma bewitched us as he flipped the pages of his Journal, sheet after sheet of esoteric diagrams and ornate, nigh inscrutable notes and captions, until he arrived at his desired page, a page four times the size of the rest, which he folded out from the spine and then down, to reveal the largest schematic yet.
“This is my latest design,” Hood said, “an engine for harnessing electricity, the energy which flows through storms, living creatures, even you and me. Like a lightning jar, but far more sophisticated. It is a complex contraption, but I have introduced some modularity into the plans so that they should be easily constructed, under my careful guidance, by two experienced and attentive assistants.” Hood smiled and winked at my brother and I. Our father was caught in the midst of an incapacitating snort, but quickly rectified the nasal obstruction and gestured with his snifter that we should begin our labours.
My brother and I had unpacked Dr. Hood’s cart on many of his visits, and treated his equipment with great and respectful care. Each time, the cart seemed near bursting with new wonders: strange machines; variegated flasks and bottles; small clockworks stuffed with intricate layerings of gears; and other items which defied easy description. On this occasion, the most prominent additions were four long thin iron poles, and a large spool of copper filament. We assembled the poles, along with other connective pieces, into a framework or scaffold of sorts, two of the poles arranged as great spires that towered over the rest of the construction and nearly brushed against the vaulted ceiling of the parlor. Hood shouted directives to us as he and Father indulged in multiple snifters of brandy. My brother and I, meanwhile, continued to pursue our furtive hostilities, each of us ensuring that Father was engrossed in conversation with his visiting friend before attempting a quick and well-placed jab on the other. We never cried out upon the other’s success, as even in our youth, we were trained to aspire to gentlemanly behavior.
Soon enough, we had completed the construction, and Hood retrieved from his cart a small chest, then pulled from the chest’s interior a large cylindrical shape, wound all about with more copper filament. He placed this spool-like object into an indentation at the center of the device, and connected metal clamps to notches on its housing. He spun the object to ensure that it rotated without obstruction, then moved to a standing metal frame studded with gears and connected to the object’s housing by long strips of iron.
“I will stand here,” Hood said, gesturing to the frame, “and, by treading alternately on these flat levers near the floor, cause the core spool to rotate at a magnificent velocity.” He began to tread, pushing down with his right foot then his left, as one lever contrived to rise up as the other was pushed down. Soon the core spool was spinning quite briskly, and emitting a low hum. Hood told me to take up a position near the framework, and directed my brother to a large brass hand lever at the far end of the scaffold, its handle wrapped in deep red fabric. “Pick up the two copper clamps you see before you. When I tell you to do so, you will attach them to the scaffolding. That will allow the pent-up electrical energy to flow from the core spool into the tallest poles of the scaffold, creating a spectacular cascade of man-made lightning!”
“I do not know that I am keen on having lightning in my foyer, Hood,” my father said.
“It’s perfectly safe, good man. I’ve tested this at least half a dozen times. Well, three times. And no one has died as a direct result of this experiment in any of my preceding attempts. It’s all a matter of sequencing.” Treading very quickly on the levers, Hood turned to my brother. “Now, when I give the word, push your lever up –” My brother immediately pushed the lever up.
The sensations I next experienced are not easily translated into words. I was, at least for a brief moment, unconscious. Preceding that was what I can only describe as a brief, almost explosive, extraordinarily loud hum, perhaps no more than a second long, that vibrated throughout my entire body. I had, of course, been subjected to the flow of electricity from the core spool to the scaffolding, my body standing in as a connector between the two copper clamps I had been unable to secure to the iron frame. Hood had leapt from the treadmill and pulled the lever my brother had connected. I immediately suspected my brother of intentional malice against me, of taking our familial rough-housing too far, and would have thrown myself at him in a rage, had I been physically capable.
Alas, I was not. My ears rang like cathedral bells, and I shook uncontrollably. I was still standing but I attributed this to an overstimulated “locking” of my muscles under the effect of the electric shock. A metallic taste filled up my mouth, and a odor of combustion touched my nose, but only in faint waves. Hood moved toward me, and regarded me, but kept his distance.
“Not what I intended, but still an opportunity to expand the bounds of knowledge. So, young man, how do you feel?” he asked.
The ringing in my head had subsided to the extent that I could hear and understand Dr. Hood’s inquiry, but crafting an appropriate response proved challenging. I continued to shudder with a disturbing violence and frequency. The intensity of the tremors all but prevented clear vocal expression. Still, I endeavored to try and, seeing Hood as an object of admiration, even an idol of sorts, I wished to impress him with an eloquent summary of my condition. I chose the word “innervated” as the best descriptor, and steeled myself answer the doctor’s question. My brother, having dishonorably won this latest round of fraternal squabbling, stifled laughter as I shook before the expectant Hood. My father swirled his brandy.
“Ininininnninninnernernernernernernvayvayvayvayvayvaytatatatatatatatttttttttededededededededed,” I said
“Did you say – did he say innervated or enervated?” asked Hood, beaming. “‘Innervated’ would make more sense, as he’s just had the very power of the sky thrust into his body!” Hood clenched his fist as he spoke and raised it toward the ceiling.
“Inninninninninninnnerrrnninnerrrrenninnervavavavavavava – ” I said, my spasms showing no sign of recession.
“He said ‘innervated’,” my father said coolly, gazing into his snifter. “Look at him, Hood, he’s positively quivering with pent-up energy.” Hood seemed very pleased with this assessment.
In a sudden and dramatic motion, Father drew his sword and pointed its gleaming tip at my brother. “I HEAR YOU LAUGHING. Accompany your brother upstairs.” A resistant syllable passed from my brother’s mouth before my father slashed the air with his blade, effectively “cutting off” the rest of his complaint.
“GO NOW,” Father bellowed, then added much more quietly, “and help him change his pants.”
Both Hood and I looked down and beheld the dark moist circle which now adorned the front of my trousers. I was chagrined, but Hood looked on me with compassion. “Don’t be embarrassed. You’ve only pissed yourself. I’ve seen grown men do much worse.”
I could not say that Hood’s words, well-meaning though they were, had much positive effect on my disposition, but I appreciated the gesture all the same. My brother arrived at my side, having shuffled slowly from his vantage point in the corner, and grasped my hand to lead me to our room. Again, I heard that abrupt thick hum and was rendered insensate, catching only a glimpse of my brother looking terrified before my sight went black.