The hideously hungry caterpillar – part 2

This is the second-part of a multi-part story. You can read part 1 here (highly recommended – Lovecraft loved to use non-linear narratives, but there was ahem… method to his madness.  Oh yes – I went there).

Part 2

I awoke in a strange bed. For a moment I could not recall where I was, but then I recognised Professor Tobius’s guest bedroom. I had been in there only a year before to find a book on blood transfusion in ancient civilisations. The room, like all others in that old sprawling house, was lined with groaning book-shelves. I lay for a while, gathering my thoughts, remembering the terrible evening before.

After my aborted meal, I had given up the evening as a lost cause and retired to my bed. Sleep, however,  had not welcome me into its arms as I, in the extremis of my fear, could not relax sufficiently to sink down into its restorative embrace. My imagination teamed with images of the hideously hungry caterpillar. I knew well the theory that, deprived of sensory input, the mind runs hot with invention to replace those sights and sounds with alternative stimulus. That was little comfort, as every shift of light from my window caught the corner of my eye; and each creak and susurration, common in a timber-framed house such as that which my flat occupied, was amplified within my hearing so that everything suggested untoward movement.

But the manifold sights and sounds that made up my night fears paled in comparison with what had happened to my sense of touch, as my skin crawled. You may have heard this phrase used in retelling infantile ghost stories, to convey the skin’s inappropriate response to the uncanny as if it felt cold, causing the hairs to stand up in a wave that sends a shiver over the body. My feeling was, in comparison to that, as dropping a glass of water you had just been handed would be to Tantalus doing the same. A million involuntary movements of skin against linen felt like a similar number of tiny legs crawling over my unprotected form, its hunger turned toward more fleshy sustenance.

I shifted constantly, and several times threw back the covers and quietly prowled the flat in slippered feet, convinced that I had seen my tiny adversary. It was on one such perambulation that I discovered that which drove me once more to flee from my dwelling, ending up at the Professor’s front door, shaking in the pre-dawn light. I was approaching the far window in my living room to check on a rattle that I knew almost certainly originated from its loose latch, when that over-sweet smell of decay caught my nostrils and caused me to pull up short.

Rotten AppleThere on my occasional table, stood my fruit-bowl. The almost-putrified apple slumped there, but the smell was much fresher. I searched the bowl, but no more fruit had been eaten. I stood back, and discovered the source of the new stench; my tan brogues, discarded under the table after arriving in the flat, now bore the distinctive twin holes that were the caterpillar’s calling card. I held my breath and knelt closer. The leathers were collapsing in on themselves just as the apple had done. Such perfect holes. I could not but admire the awful precision of those tiny jaws. I imagined I could almost hear them – a tiny high-pitched grinding noise.

And then I saw it. The noise had been real enough, and the creature had grown in size from it’s gorging. It was now almost four inches long, or so I judged, as all but its head was sticking out from the toe of my slippers; the slippers I currently wore. I gasped out loud, and immediately regretted it, as I gagged, reeling from breathing too much of that fetid air. I tore off the offending slipper and threw it at the wall. There was a wet noise as the caterpillar slid to the floor, still embedded in my foot-ware. The continued crunching noise, now grown monstrously loud in my ears, continued.

I admit that I screamed then, and ran. Professor Tobius’ had been surprised at my arrival at his house on the outskirts of Arkham at such a late hour, but welcomed me into the old place as if I had been a long-expect guest.

“You are not homeless, I trust?” he enquired, as he lead the way down the book-lined corridor barely wide enough for us to walk down in single file.

“Whatever gives you that idea?”

He paused and looked over his shoulder, and I followed his gaze to my bruised and bleeding foot. In my rush to leave, I had failed to replace the missing slipper. Only now that I felt I was protected indoors away from my perilous flat did the pain start to intrude on my consciousness.

I winced. ”No… well, not exactly. I certainly don’t feel safe there any more,” I said.

“What ever has happened, Thomas?”

I shook my head, and he smiled kindly, beckoning me to follow him to his study. Once within that dusty, cosy room that I had spent so much time as a young man reading or discussing my work with the man in front of me, I found myself relaxing. It did not hurt that I was so expertly lead to a comfortable wing-backed chair and had a bowl of brandy pressed into my hand. I attempted a smile, but the expression faltered and I took a long drink.

The brandy was excellent, but it was never meant to be gulped like a cordial tonic. I coughed and looked up to find the professor’s dark brown eyes looking piercingly into my own. I was reminded that for all his cordiality and eccentricities, this was the man who had survived through five decades of faculty politics and bullied me through years of research and into a well regarded academic in my own right. That ruthlessness was apparent as he kindly but firmly persuaded my story out of me.

It is a testament to his open mindedness that when I concluded he did not laugh or condescend to call me over-wrought. Instead he sat there for a moment then simply asked:

“You are certain of your own perceptions?”

“I am.”

He continued to look at me, levelly.

“Very well.” The professor stood and held out his hand. I took it and he clasped mine firmly. “You have had a great shock, and your lucidity and sureness persuade me that this creature is more than a simple insect. Perhaps it is a new species, or just some freak aberration that arrived from the spice islands with your bananas. But I am certain that it is nothing that two well-equipped men cannot deal with.”

His earnest offer of help touched me, and I might have broken-down again, but the professor precipitously steered me towards his guest room, and I knew nothing until waking to the strong yellow light of an Arkham spring noon.

I settled back against the bolster and let took a deep breath. In that cheerful glow and that safe place, my earlier fears seemed, if not ridiculous, then at least removed to a distance that I could consider them less viscerally. Surely the professor was right; however horrible the caterpillar, however fearful I was of it, it was still a tiny thing. How could I but triumph against something so much smaller than myself. Better still, I had the professor’s capable help.

As if thinking of him had summoned him, the professor knocked and entered the room.

“Ah, you’re awake. And I must say that you are looking considerably better.” Indeed, I felt much restored, but it was to be a short lived feeling. “That is all to the good, as you will need your strength for our little expedition”

“Expedition? Surely not back to my apartment? I… I am not certain that I am up to it yet.” I was ashamed at my cringing reaction to the thought of returning to my home, but the very thought of it shed the thin veneer of safety I had been feeling like butter under a flame-torch.

The professor, not unfeelingly, replied “Yes, indeed back to your apartment. But not until tomorrow at the earliest. For today we will need to do a little research. And we will not be alone in this task. I have made some calls while you recuperated. Help is on the way.”

To be continued next week…