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Fiction

Night Doctors

“De only Ku Klux I ever bumped into was a passel o’ young Baltimore Doctors tryin’ to ketch me one night an’ take me to de medicine college to ’periment on me. I seed dem a laying’ fer me an’ I run back into de house. Dey had a plaster all ready for to slap on my mouf. Yessuh.”

—Cornelius Garner (ex-slave, Virginia), interview by Emmy Wilson and Claude W. Anderson, May 18, 1937 (Weevils in the Wheat, 1976:102)

• • • •

My arrival in Durham comes on a sweltering August afternoon in 1937. I am here on work with the Federal Writers’ Project, tasked to conduct interviews of former slaves, to collect their stories, memories, and folkways, as that generation is daily dying out and will soon reach its end.

Securing lodgings comes with its usual difficulties, as Jim Crowism is as rampant in this city as any other in the South. From experience, I can assure that if there is anything a Southerner dislikes more than a colored man it is one who shows education and learning.

The proprietor of the local Chanford Motel informs me that he does not “rent rooms to niggers” with further invectives followed by a hail of saliva and pungent chewing tobacco. I wipe the detritus from my spectacles and leave the establishment, not altogether surprised.

After some investigation, I am able to secure lodgings in the city at the place of a colored butcher, a squat anvil of a man with arms suited to his profession. He tends to his work while we haggle, hacking at a knuckle of meat with a wide hog splitter and cleanly slicing flesh from bone with a thin knife.

“Well, I’ll take you on. Mr. Bisset, is it? Gonna have to get yer food someplace else tho’. Mama Elsa’s just round the corner. One of the finest meals you’ll ever have in town. ’Less you like yer meat rare.”

He chuckles, wiping his apron with ham-fisted, bloody smears before showing me up some side stairs. The room is clean but spartan: a small bed, a closet, and a window that opens to an alley.

“You can comes and goes as you please. Gonna have to put up with the smell tho’, when I’m butchering.” I surreptitiously sniff the air, where a coppery scent seeps into every pore and crevice.

“You say you a writer?” His eyes move to appraise my supple hands. “And you here to ask old folk ’bout slavery times? Government pay colored men for that?”

I explain that many of the old Negroes prove reluctant with white interviewers. The Works Progress Administration hopes that colored men and women such as myself can alleviate their recalcitrance.

He laughs. “President Roosevelt makin’ a job for everybody. And what you thinkin’ to find out ’bout slavery times? That white folk had as much of the devil in ’em then as now?”

We share a knowing smile before he departs—the one that unites the colored race across region and caste in our sacred knowledge and unwritten scriptures on the ways of white folk.

When he’s gone, I open my suitcases, laying out my clothes and removing a leather book that I place beneath the mattress. Then I set out for dinner.

True to the butcher’s words, Mama Elsa (a matronly woman who is a wonder in the kitchen) provides me with a fine meal of the Southern Negro variety. Learning I am from the North, she sits to talk with me over jars of iced tea and raisin cake, suggesting where I might find older Negroes who remember slavery. When I return to my room, I plot out my plans for the next day, turn down the lights, and retire.

I wake up sometime after two a.m.

I pick out a white suit from my belongings: a full jacket, vest, and pants with white socks and white shoes. Fully dressed, I grab up a matching cloth bag and make my way down the side passage of the butchery until I step outside. Pulling a white bowler down to keep it firm, I enter into Durham’s still night, keeping from the main roads and remaining hidden behind buildings and shadows until reaching my destination. When I rap on the door with a white-gloved hand, the face of the man that greets me looks confused. Perhaps from being roused from sleep. Or at the sight of a tall Negro man dressed in white, wearing a surgeon’s mask.

The blur of silver cuts a clean line across the man’s throat, spraying bits of crimson onto the white apron I assiduously placed over my wears. He clutches the open wound, shock and pain marring his sharp features. He does not try to scream, not that he can, with the severed trachea. Instead he tries to hold in the fluid that leaks over his hands, staggering back and knocking over a small stool as he falls. I follow and close the door behind me.

The proprietor of the Chanford Motel lies on a disheveled rug, his bare legs kicking from beneath a blue robe. Righting the stool, I seat myself and watch. The condescension that had once filled those gray eyes, when he’d earlier hurled slurs in my face, is gone. There is only fear now, in a gaze that is fixed singly on me as if I have become his whole world. It is an animal’s terror—unable to look away from the predator that has captured it. He watches as I remove a cloth bundle from my bag, spreading it upon the floor. The silver instruments within are sharp, made for cutting and slicing. I run a finger over them and am reminded how similar a surgeon’s tools are to a butcher’s.

A wet gurgling comes from the specimen laid out before me—a failed attempt to speak through ruined cartilage. I imagine it is asking why, so I answer.

“You may think this is vengeance for our earlier uncivil encounter. But I can assure it is nothing so base.” I draw out my leather book, opening it to show notations and sketches. “I’m a curious man, you see, looking for something. And you, I believe, offer a fine sampling.”

Those panic-stricken animal eyes remain on me as I cut open the specimen’s abdomen. They stay open long after I begin my search within the reek of bile and organs.

In my book, I jot down my findings.

• • • •

My first three interviews the next day yield little result. Two of the Negroes were children at the end of slavery and remember little of it. A third is so addle-minded, he does little more than glare.

It is late afternoon when I arrive at the home of Miss Maddie Shaw, who lives with her granddaughter in a humble shack at the city’s edge, near woods untouched by electricity, plumbing, or paved roads.

Miss Shaw claims to be ninety-seven years of age. She is an ideal illustration of the old Negro type: black skin, white teeth, and woolly hair. Her face, with its wide forehead and prognathous jaw, bears a regal countenance that looks descended from the Amazons of Dahomey. She is bound to this place by infirmity and lords over it like a Kentake of old Meroe. When I tell her why I’ve come, she is guarded.

“Can I tell yer ’bout slavery days? Sho’, but I ain’t going to. Most of it I can’t remember. And the rest’s too awful to tell. Don’t need to know all that old talk no how. You got sweeties? I lak sweet things and don’t get dem too often.”

At learning I have no sweets, she turns away from me with disinterest. Her granddaughter, younger than myself (though aged unnaturally by a life under Jim Crowism), is my savior. She prods the elder, telling her I’ve come to put her story into a book. Miss Maddie Shaw shifts in her rickety throne and eyes me contemplatively.

“Well, I’ll tell yer some to put down in yer book. But not the worse. Where I’m from? Was born and raised right here. Same as my mammy and pappy, back when dis was all Payne land. My ol’ missus? Dat be Miss Emma Payne. How she treat me? Lak a missus treat all her slaves. She’d slap and beat you wit’ her hands and every now and den take to you wit’ a switch till you raw. But her husband was the tough one, hang you up by the thumbs in the barn and den whup you till the blood run. Did he beat women? Why sure he beat dem, jes’ lak men. Beat us naked and washed us down in brine on Sundays, right fore he gon’ to church.”

She makes a bitter face.

“I ain’t gon tell yer much more. No, I ain’t. No sense for yer to know ’bout all dose mean white folk. Dey all daid now. Is dey in heaven? Lord no! Dey don’t deserve heaven nor hell. Wish the Night Doctors had took ’em!”

Those last words jolt my spine. Setting aside my writing pad, I reach into my bag for my leather book and bid her to continue, trying to hold back my eagerness.

“Night Doctors? Oh, dey was a fright round here back’n when dis was Payne land. Night Doctors was men, you see, only dey was not men. Used to come round at night and snatch away slaves to ’speriment on. Best you up and die ’fore the Night Doctors git you. Dey take you to where dey stay, a great white dissectin’ hall, big as a whole city, and cut you open right dere and show you all yer insides!”

Old Miss Shaw reads my face as if it were etched with runes, and grins at deciphering them.

“Oh, I sees what you lak. Ain’t stories ’bout slaves and white folk you want to hear. It’s stories ’bout haints and witches, raw head and bloody bones. Old Maddie knows dem stories and better. You come back wit’ sumtin sweet, might jes’ tell you more.”

With that, her face closes. I shut my book in turn and bid her farewell, thoughts of Night Doctors whispering in my head.

• • • •

“Night Doctors?”

Mama Elsa squints at me over the frosted rim of a mason jar. “Now what you want with them ol’ stories?”

I explain that the Federal Writer’s Project is interested in the folkways of ex-slaves, and I share a particular interest. In fact, I tell her, I am collecting such stories for a book.

She raises a sculpted eyebrow and removes a flat tin flask from somewhere in her voluminous saffron dress to top off our iced tea.

“You writer folk sho’ got queer ideas. I just know what the ol’ people say. Night Doctors was supposed to be men what snatched away slaves. They’d leave traps to get you. Some of em’ had black bottles full of ether or needles to prick you with. Other times, they put plaster round yo’ face. They’d experiment on you. Slice you up while you was still alive even!”

I ask if she believes such stories.

“Did when I was little. My auntie used to tell us. Said she heard them from our grandmammy. Used to give me a fright. But I knows better now. Night Doctors was made up by white folks. Was the masters theyselves, you see, dressing up and scarin’ the slaves to keep them from running off the plantations.”

I nod thoughtfully. Night Doctors, Night Witches, Night Riders, Bottle Men, and Needle Men. My first hearing of the tale was back in Washington D.C., in medical school, conveyed to us as a curious superstition of Negro migrants so plentiful in the city. Much as Mama Elsa relates, it’s commonly held that the folklore arose with slave masters. Others claim it began with the all too common practice of selling deceased slaves to medical colleges as cadavers. Night Doctors lingered on with freedom, with some mistaking the Klan for “Ku Klux” Doctors. The stories are common among Negroes throughout the cities of the South: Charleston, New Orleans, Birmingham. And though told with slight variations, they share a remarkable continuity.

“Suppose you asking ’bout these Night Doctors because of what’s been happening here in Durham,” Mama Elsa says.

I work my face into befuddlement, and she leans forward to whisper.

“It’s all folk can talk ’bout! Four white people found dead in the past week. They was cut open and then sewed up—like somebody took they insides out and put it all back in again!”

I round my eyes to match her alarm, asking if they’ve caught anyone. She shakes her head.

“They ain’t know who done it. But they saying it got to be some kind of doctor. They checkin’ all the white folk work up at the hospital.”

I sip from my jar. Of course, in Durham, the culprit would be expected to be white. Negroes were suspected well enough of delinquencies—stealing, robbery, rape, even casual murder. But nothing like this. Nothing that required such skill.

Had anyone cared to look, they would find a pattern to the specimens. The storeowner who viciously beat a colored boy of twelve for the offense of not removing his hat in a white man’s presence. The public defender that conspired to shuffle his clients into chain gangs. The old carpenter who bragged openly of the Negro he once helped burn alive. The thread that connected them was gleaned from the whispered chatter picked up in spaces like Mama Elsa’s, of the many sins of this city—like the others. It should have been easy to see, but was rendered as invisible as the crimes each had committed.

“Them killings done started up talk ’bout Night Doctors,” Mama Elsa went on. “Some saying they even seen a man in white skulkin’ round the back streets at night.”

I remind her that she doesn’t believe in such things anymore. She returns a wry grin. “There’s what you don’t believe in, Mr. Bisset, and then there’s what you ’fraid of.” She pauses. “We used to sing this song ’bout Night Doctors when we was small.” She puts on the wide eyes and hoary voice of an ancient storyteller, mesmerizing her clansmen about the fire:

Yuh see that house? That great white house?
Way yonder down de street?
They used to take dead folks in there
Wrapped in a long white sheet!
An’ sometimes when a nigger did stop,
A-wondering who was dead,
Them Night Doctors would come along
An’ bat him on the head!
An’ drag that poor dead nigger chile
Right in they dissectin’ hall
To investigate his liver, lights—
His gizzard and his gall.
Take off dat nigger’s hands an’ feet—
His eyes, his head, an’all,
An’ when them doctors finish up
They wasn’t nothin’ left at all!

She finishes with a whoop of laughter. “Maybe you can write a book bout that!”

“Perhaps I will,” I answer. And I sip my tea.

• • • •

It is a week before I return to see Miss Maddie Shaw. I find her alone, her granddaughter having gone into Durham to do domestic work. I ask if she remembers me.

“Well sho’ I do. See you come back to ask more questions for yer book. Colored folk sho’ come up high in the world. You git to learn from books in all dem big schools wit the white folk? No? A school jes’ for colored folk? Well, ain’t dat sumthin. What dey learn you dar?”

Medicine, I tell her, discarding my earlier pretenses. I learned how to be a surgeon. But I was a curious man, and I now search for something beyond what my learning could teach me. I tell her I think she might be able to help. She listens and shrugs.

“If so you say. You brung sumthin sweet?”

I offer up a bag of caramels, and her old eyes light up. She takes one between thumb and forefinger, plopping it in her mouth and sucking joyfully. I wait for her to finish and ask about the Night Doctors.

“Lak I say, dey was men that was not men who snatched away the slaves. Dey come mostly for the sick and old ones. Did Marser Payne know? Pfshaw! White folk ain’t pay no mind what slaves say. Dey lose a healthy nigger and dey thinkin he ran off. Dey lose a sick or old nigger, jes’ one less mouth at the trow’. Did dey like to scare us? Sho’. Nothin’ made dem happier than scaring niggers, exceptin’ whipping ’em. When I was small, Marster Payne used to put out a trow’ and have us little ones eatin’ from it lak hogs. Remember, he’d say whoeva finish last he gonna cut and hang up like a piglet and have us for Easter dinner. We eat fast den, and he jes’ laugh and laugh. Used to scare me powerful, thinkin’ of hanging up in dat smokehouse, all salted and ready fer marster ’n’ missus to eat.”

I tell her that I’ve heard about Night Doctors too. I tap the leather book in my lap. I explain that I’ve collected stories about them from old former slaves like her, from all around the country. I ask if Night Doctors weren’t just white men like her master, trying to scare the slaves. She hoots at this.

“Men in sheets? Night Doctors not no men in sheets! You figurin’ some ol’ white man in a sheet gonna scare a big field hand lak Jeremiah? Who was he? Only the biggest buck you eva seen! Strong too. One time, the overseer tie him to a tree stump. Jeremiah pull dat stump right out the ground and walk round wit’ it draggin’ behind! He wasn’t scared of nothin’ or nobody neither. Exceptin’ the Night Doctors.”

Did this Jeremiah see one, I press? A Night Doctor? She takes another caramel, sucking for a while before answering.

“Jeremiah’s wife, Adeline, she take sick. Marster send out his nigger doctor, same one who look after horses and mules. But he say she burning up wit’ the fever and gon’ be dead. Was late dat same night the Night Doctors come. Jeremiah hear a knocking outside. And he knows nobody come calling ’round dat time. He shout for dem to leave. But Night Doctors don’t heed what you say. Dey come right in under the door! Yes, under the door is what I say! Dey can squeeze dey bodies like a rat do, right up under yer door and appear big as day! When Jeremiah see dem, he try to hold on to his wife.

“But dem doctors just start talking dey whisper talk. Dat’s how dey get on, whisperin’ right inside yer head. Adeline hear dat whisperin’ and jump out dat bed lak she not sick! She start walkin’ to dem. When Jeremiah try and stop her, she turn back to him. But not her whole body, jes’ her neck, all twisted ’bout like an owl! And when she open her mouth, only dat whisper talk come out. Dat just ’bout make Jeremiah crazy. He starts to hollerin’ and the other slaves come running! But the Night Doctors wus gone. Take Adeline wit dem.”

My hands are shaking as I write. I’ve recorded many stories about Night Doctors. But Miss Shaw tells them with a clarity I’ve never before encountered. Overcome, I lean forward and spill out my own truths.

I too believe these Night Doctors are more than folktales, I tell her. And whoever or whatever they are, I believe they can help me in my work. Help me in my great search.

“And what you lookin’ for, Mistuh Bisset? What you thinkin’ some Night Doctors can help you find?”

Hate, I tell her. I’m looking for hate.

Most people would greet my words with bewilderment. They might even think I was mad. But Maddie Shaw only reaches for another caramel and speaks again without prodding.

“When Adeline was took, Jeremiah swear he gon’ git her back. He sneak off to see a conjurin’ woman what live on a near plantation. She tell him to go into the woods a ways at night and look for the daid Angel Oak. Dat’s the way to where dem Night Doctors stay. He gon’ on do it, traveling to the big white dissectin’ hall and get to fussin’ wit’ dem Night Doctors ’bout Adeline. Dey don’t give her, but dey let him come back. When we find him, he ’bout half-daid and wit no eyes in his head. Yes, I say! No eyes! Wasn’t nothing dere but bloody holes starin’ out at you! And he tell us what he learn, why it is dem Night Doctors come.”

She reaches out to grab my arm. The hand that holds me is old, but the grip is tight—marked with scars and callouses, made strong by enduring hardship.

“It’s our sufferin’ dey want! See, dey ain’t got no feelins where dey comes from. Dey empty and dried out inside. Don’t know nuthin’ ’bout pain or misery. And ain’t nobody seen more pain and sufferin’ in these parts than us poor slaves. Dat’s why dey take jes’ us. Why dey leave the white folk be. Dat’s why dey take Jeremiah’s eyes, ’cause he done looked out on so much misery in his life. That was the bargain what won him free.”

She releases me then and settles back, but her eyes are as firm as her grip.

“If you go to see dem Night Doctors, dey gonna set a price ’fore you can leave. Or you don’t come back. Wat you ready to give, Mistuh Bisset?”

• • • •

That night, I walk the woods just on Durham’s edges, a ghost in white. Old Maddie Shaw’s instructions play in my head. Find the dead Angel Oak. I’d know it when I see it. But I had to want to see it, she’d said. And how I wanted that so badly.

In medical school, we learned of the discarded notion of humorism, begun by those wise Hamites of Egypt and passed down to the Greeks, Romans, and onto the Hindus in their Ayurveda medicine. It believed in the existence of bodily fluids that made up each man: blood was the first and foremost humor of life; yellow bile was the cause of aggression; black bile was the source of melancholy; and phlegm, apathy.

In our hubris, we’ve disparaged this wisdom for modernity. And it is our loss, for we are kept ignorant of the human condition. I believe there is another humor yet unaccounted for: hate. I have seen enough of its workings in this world to know that it exists. If it can be found at its source, perhaps its essence can be counteracted or drained away, to ease the senseless and injurious emotion that has caused humanity such incalculable harm. I looked for it in dissecting halls and in the cold cavities of cadavers. But it remained elusive. So I took my search to living specimens. My travels have offered me unique opportunities to continue my pursuit. And these Night Doctors, who understand the hidden inner workings of the body, have been my inspiration.

I cannot say if it is I who find the dead tree or if it finds me, but it stands out suddenly in the shadowed forest. Where the hickories that surround it are tall and dark, the dead Angel Oak is squat and bone white. Generous branches grow out from its trunk, splitting into further limbs that spill out upon the ground and reach up into the air. The skeletal remains of dead things cover the tree in a decaying moss, and as I draw near, I can see that some are fused to the pale wood: ribcages and the vertebrae of spinal columns, even teeth, all taken from more beasts than I can count. I place my hand to a hefty bough and find it solid, but not hard, and warm to the touch. Opening my razor, I draw a gash across the colorless bark. It splits open and oozes blood thick as sap.

The dead tree, I decide, is oddly named.

I walk to the trunk, wondering fancily if the tree’s many appendages might snatch me up like some horrid kraken of the deep. From my bundle of tools, I select the bone saw and set about cutting. The jagged iron teeth tear into red pulp that gives way like tough meat. By the time the hole is made wide enough, I am spattered in arboreal gore. I reach into the fleshy interior, pulling apart hardy muscle and gristle. There is soft, sucking warmth when I push myself into the gaping wound. I take a breath and thrust deeper. For a terrifying moment, there is only suffocating darkness, and I imagine my body becoming trapped within, digested by this monstrous tree, my bones fusing to its pallid branches and left to knock together like chimes in any errant wind. Breaking through, I tumble out onto hard stone, covered in the sweet metallic pungency of my birth blood.

I am in a hall.

To call it cavernous is to do an injustice. It is gargantuan, and I am but a Lilliputian in turn. Its high walls and ceilings are made of white stone that look continuous, with no bricks or seams—as if carved from one block of massive ivory. The opening I entered through is now a blistering wound, knitting back together like skin before vanishing altogether. I reach a blood-soaked palm to touch where it had been, leaving an imprint on the now unblemished stone.

I turn about to look down the hall and can now make out corridors as well. They are endless and flow on and on, like a small city of stone. There is nothing to do now, I surmise, but continue my journey to seek out the masters of this nether realm. As I walk, my shoes reverberate in the silence. It strikes me that there is no sound here. But for the trail of blood left by my footsteps, all is pristine, sterile.

I reach the first corridor and peer down its length. It is as swallowing and seemingly infinite as the one I now follow. Another on the opposite side is much the same. There are no windows or doors. And I am left to wonder if this hall is all there is to be found here? I am deciding my next course of action when I hear the first noise other than my own. It is a dull shuffling, like many bare feet running upon stone. And it is growing. Base instinct sends me darting into one of the corridors, wary of being seen. Back flat against the wall, I peek around the edge to find a monstrosity emerging from another passageway.

I bite a clenched fist not to cry out. The thing before me is a horror from a fevered nightmare. It resembles a great colorless centipede, easily the width of an automobile and longer still, with a segmented body of armor topped with a fused spinal ridge. It is so uniformly white, it blends with the stone as it pours out from the corridor, winding along the ceiling on a multitude of legs, each of which ends in a long-fingered hand. Clinging to the wall, it snakes down to the closed opening where I entered. Two protracted antennae twitch as mandibles upon its eyeless head open to lap up my bloodied handprint. It stretches to the ground: half of its elongated bulk still clutching the wall while a torso of wriggling legs, fingers, and feelers scours the floor clean of the first of my bloody footprints.

I turn and run, knowing now that I am being hunted.

Panic grips me in my flight. I imagine this monstrosity is the guard dog of this place. Or perhaps a scavenger, set to maintain its purity. And I am terrified of my fate were it to find me. I think to remove my bloodstained shoes, cursing at not having the wits to do so earlier. It is as I pause to look over my shoulder to see if I am being pursued that something seizes me.

I am pulled off my feet, landing hard on my back. My head strikes the stone floor, and my world threatens to go dark in a blossom of pain. But I chase it away, forcing my mind back to coherency. I am being dragged by my legs, my body limp and arms splayed at my sides. I cry out, thinking the monstrous scavenger has captured me! But when I crane my neck to look up, I find I am held by giants.

They appear to my eyes at first as impossibly tall men. Their bodies are draped in long white robes over frames that seem almost skeletal. The hands that hold me are pale with desiccated skin stretched tight over long slender fingers. I shout, demanding to be released. But when one turns back to me, I am stricken silent.

There are no features on that colorless face: no eyes, nose, or even a mouth. There are just folds of wrinkled skin on an elongated head. As I stare into that blank visage, I know then that I have found the beings that I have so long sought. The Bottle Men and Needle Men of old Negro folklore who stalk the darkness and shadows. The Night Doctors.

We stop, and I am lifted, deposited unceremoniously atop a raised block of stone. I attempt to rise, but a whisper fills my head: a cacophony of voices that shatter my will. My body obeys this eldritch power, and I lay immobile as six-fingered hands reach to tear away my clothing, discarding my soiled suit and stripping me bare. I am unable even to blink, leaving me to stare as another block of stone descends from above. This one is lined with silver implements, the first hint of color I’ve seen. One looks like scissors with four serrated blades. Another is cruelly hooked like a scythe. Others are pointed, barbed, or covered in thin needles. The otherworldly lords of this realm arrange themselves about me, each taking one of the silver devices in hand. I know what they are then: the tools of a surgeon.

Grasping their intent, I am fast overcome with that animal terror: the very one I have seen in the eyes of my specimens. It threatens to envelop me, drown me in its depths. But I have come too far to end things here. I grapple with the terror-stricken animal within, caging it and wresting back control as a blade descends to part my flesh.

“Wait!” I shout. “I want to talk! Wait!”

I watch the blade move closer and wonder if my words will reach them. Were the amoeba on my petri dish to voice its lament, would I hear? Were the frog in my dissecting tray to cry out to stay my hand, would I listen?

I remember then Old Maddie Shaw’s words. They would set a price. “I can pay the price!” I scream.

The blade mercifully stops and hovers.

The Night Doctors turn to regard each other, and the whispering begins again, filling the silence in the spaces of my mind. I do not understand, but when it stops, one of those terrible faces leans down to loom over me. The voice that comes is a whisper, alien and cold, that hammers my skull.

Price. What do you know of the price?

My words spill out in a rush. “I know what you seek! The pain! The misery! I know it! You didn’t take me like the others! I sought you out. I came here willingly! Because I know about the price!”

Fools come here willingly.

I’m not certain if it is the same voice or another, but I give answer. “I’m like you, an explorer. I search for something. Something more than the misery and pain you’ve come to savor. Help me find it, and I will offer it to you!”

One of the cyclopean heads tilt, appearing curious. Name this thing you would offer. Name this new price.

“Hate,” I whisper. “I will give you hate.”

The Night Doctors share looks and new whispers. I don’t need to understand to know their meaning. It is confusion. They turn back to look down at me.

You will explain. Hate.

I am struck silent. How am I to describe hate to beings such as these? How do I put meaning to the insensible?

I am still in my thoughts when the blade descends, cutting deep into my abdomen with a searing fire. A primal scream pours from my depths, and the caged animal howls in unison, throwing itself at its bars. I watch as the glistening ropes of my intestines are pulled free. The Night Doctors probe its fleshy contours, heedless of my cries. A hand reaches back inside me to retrieve a pink mass I know is my stomach. It is passed around among my hosts, one of whom slits it open to spill out the putrid contents. My liver is pored over by slender fingers, investigated as one would a book.

And it is only then that I understand: you will explain, Hate.

They are reading me, seeking to comprehend what could not be put into words. It must have been them, I muse, who long ago visited the Babylonians, delivering the lesson of hepatoscopy—the reading of entrails, passed on to the Hittites, Etruscans, and priestesses of old Rome. With this final knowing, I surrender to the pain, my shrieks coming in a holy litany. I sing to these lords of viscera, I tell them of hate, of Negro bodies hung from trees like fruit. In the cooked hearts and severed fingers distributed as souvenirs. In the postcards to celebrate the bonfires made of men and women for no other crime but Negritude. In the daily rituals of humiliations and oppressions that engulfs the whole land. I sing to them of the hate that consumes men’s souls like a ravaging cancer. When my eyes are plucked free, leaving only tears of blood to streak my cheeks, I am still singing.

• • • •

It is not yet morning when I stand again before Miss Maddie Shaw. I am dressed once more in my white suit, my white shoes, my white bowler hat, and holding my white doctor’s bag. She awakens at my presence, blinking up at me.

“You come back,” she says plainly.

I give a slow nod. “I have been to the place where the Night Doctors live.”

Her eyes meet my empty bleeding sockets.

“Look like it so.”

Her granddaughter murmurs from a pile of blankets on the floor. I whisper a command, and she eases back into sleep. My attention returns to Miss Maddie Shaw.

“They have shared with me their secrets and returned me to do my work.” In truth, they had done more than that. They had initiated me, chosen me as their conduit to this world to seek out this promised feast of hate.

“I thank you,” I say, “for showing me the way.”

The old woman grunts. “Seem like you knows the way long ’fore I tell you.”

I grin at this, and she flinches. When I turn to leave, she calls out a question.

“What you give them to learn dey secrets? To let you come back?”

I look down, beneath the white suit, to a body now emptied of organs and entrails and blood, of all that it once held.

“All of me,” I answer. “I gave everything.”

With those parting words, I collapse, flattening like a rat as I squeeze beneath the door of her cabin and out into the night.

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P. Djèlí Clark

Phenderson Djéli Clark is the award winning and Hugo, Nebula, and Sturgeon nominated author of the novellas The Black God’s Drums and The Haunting of Tram Car 015. His stories have appeared in online venues such as Tor.com, Heroic Fantasy Quarterly, and Beneath Ceaseless Skies, and in print anthologies, including Griots, Hidden Youth and Clockwork Cairo. He is a founding member of FIYAH: A Magazine of Black Speculative Fiction and an infrequent reviewer at Strange Horizons.

At current time, he resides in a small Edwardian castle in New England with his wife, twin daughters, and pet dragon, where he works as an academic historian. When so inclined he rambles on issues of speculative fiction, politics, and diversity at his aptly named blog The Disgruntled Haradrim.

His forthcoming novella Ring Shout, a mashup of Southern horror and fantasy, will be published by Tor.com in October 2020.

Pronouns: He/Him/His